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Burnt Yet Undaunted

Verbatim Account of Senji Yamaguchi
Compiled by Shinji Fujisaki
Published by Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo), September 2002


by Joseph Gerson

Fifty-seven years after the second atomic bomb was exploded over a city with "densely packed workers housing" (as the Pentagon's criteria for appropriate targets required) the official anniversary commemoration in Nagasaki remains a unique and solemn event. But, during the commemorative ceremony in August 2002, many of us were astounded by a truly remarkable event.

It was after the Japanese Prime Minister of Japan, surviving Hibakusha (witness/survivors of the atomic bombing), the mayor, city council members, children, and other selected dignitaries had laid their memorial wreaths, after the symbolic offering of water for the spirits of the dead, and after the reading of the city's official Peace Declaration which castigated the Bush Administration for its rejection of arms control treaties and for its threats of preemptive first strike nuclear attacks, that Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister assumed his position at the lectern beneath one of the world's ugliest statues. Midway through the Prime Minister's speech, those watching it on television heard the news anchor say, "The Prime Minister is still speaking. We will now turn to interview Senji Yamaguchi, a leading Nagasaki Hibakusha, to get his views on these events." The prime minister of the world's second greatest economic power had been cut off in mid-sentence by a major television network, so that a prophetic peace and justice activist and organizer could be interviewed. As my friend Hiroshi Takakusaki explained "That's Senji Yamaguchi!"

For many people, Senji Yamaguchi is primarily a shocking photograph that is found in a booklet titled "Hibakusha" that is distributed across Japan and throughout the world by Nihon Hidankyo, the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations. In a few pages, words and shattering photographs, the booklet begins to communicate the savagery of nuclear weapons, the Hibakusha's pain and suffering, and their insistence that these infernal weapons be completely abolished so that there will be No more Hiroshimas, No more Nagasakis, and No More Hibakusha.

One of the most deeply disturbing - revolting is a word that comes to mind - pictures in the booklet is of Yamaguchi-san's(1) broiled body. The photograph was taken in the early 1950s and provides pictorial evidence of what 3,000 degrees of nuclear heat can do to a human being. Seeing this picture, we can all too easily understand why children then called Yamaguchi-san a "red demon" and ran away when they saw him coming, causing him still greater anguish.

It is no wonder that people who have long known Yamaguchi-san, or who meet him after seeing that photograph, are humbled and awed by the strength and depth of his spirit. I tell U.S.-Americans that Yamaguchi-san is the Martin Luther King Jr., of the Hibakusha and Japanese peace movements, and this is not an exaggeration.

I have a memory from an annual World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs held in Nagasaki, perhaps in 2000. Those of us who know Yamaguchi-san were saddened to learn that he was in the hospital and that it was unlikely that he would be able to join the conference. Maybe, I thought, if I was lucky, I would be able to visit him briefly. Then, on August 9, in the midst of the Nagasaki rally that had drawn about 8,000 people from across Japan and internationally, I was amazed to see Yamaguchi-san stride across the stage to the podium, dressed in a suit and tie, as Hiroshi Takakusaki whispered to me that "Yamaguchi has escaped from the hospital." Then, from Yamaguchi-san's small body and passionate spirit there erupted a thunderous and riveting speech in which he described his experience of nuclear Hell, and helped us understand that these are "weapons of the devil." He described the evil of the U.S. and other nuclear powers which continue to hold the world hostage to threatened nuclear holocausts and possible omnicide, and, with the help of the amplification system, he literally roared that this must never happen again, to anyone, that for the sake of humanity, all nuclear weapons must be abolished.

It is no wonder that since he addressed the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in 1982 (again getting up from his sick bed,) the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly demanded that the nuclear powers honor its first resolution and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by completely eliminating their nuclear arsenals. Of course, all the credit does not lie with Yamaguchi-san, but no one and no institution can be the same after hearing or being inspired by him.

To really understand Yamaguchi-san, it helps to know that on the evening after he surprised us with his escape, he was there in the hotel lobby, welcoming people as they came to celebrate the success of the World Conference. Etched in my memory are his delighted and enthusiastic smile, his laughter as he drank with friends, and the hugs he gave and received.

Before highlighting several themes in this compelling, important, and in turns, compassionate, righteously angry, reflective, and humorous autobiography, there are two observations to share. In her book, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, Norma Field describes the "especially precious" role of abused but courageous minorities who "do battle for themselves and for majorities." Oppression and abuse are anything but liberating forces. Yet, movements for democracy, peace, justice, and human survival are in most cases led by those precious people whose wounds and life experiences make them sensitive to the suffering of others and to the dangers faced by the wider community and who are blessed with magnanimity of spirit and the strength of character to raise the alarm and to lead us into the "promised land." Senji Yamaguchi and other extraordinary Hibakusha along with dedicated housewives, doctors, workers, intellectuals, and students who created the Japanese peace movement are just such precious people. In Yamaguchi's memoir, you will read how people suffering excruciating physical and psychic wounds transformed their agonies into compassionate and indomitable forces insisting that nuclear weapons be completely eliminated. If Yamaguchi's life and those of the women and other men who helped build this movement do not inspire and serve as models for us, nothing will.

It is helpful to remember that Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul, titled his autobiography My Experiments With Truth. Although Senji Yamaguchi is less well known, his book could easily carry a title similar to Gandhi's. Like Gandhi's meditative work, Yamaguchi-san's autobiography does more than provide us with the contexts and, details of his life. It gives us intimations of the human meanings and experience of nuclear war, as well as a very personal chronicle of 20th century Japan and the Cold War. His book also engages us with Yamaguchi-san's experiments with truth, love, and organizing, and it provides a comprehensive -- and sometimes critical -- history of the Japanese peace movement. None of us are perfect, and along the way, Yamaguchi-san invites us to laugh with him as he sometimes laughs at himself and his engagement with the world.

Several themes in Yamaguchi-sensei's(2) book should be highlighted here. As well as being his autobiography, it is also the introduction to the history and politics of the Japanese peace movement and to the World Conference against A and H Bombs that so many of us gaijin(3) have yearned for years.

One of the major contributions of Yamaguchi's book is that it illuminates the catastrophic human meanings and Evil of nuclear weapons, and of the governments and societies that create and threaten to use them. Yamaguchi-sensei's descriptions of nuclear Hell and of the destruction of human lives wrought by just two atomic bombs over shatter the antiseptic abstractions of nuclearists and arms control advocates. Through the example of his life, Yamaguchi-sensei shows us that Hibakusha (which today include the millions of U.S. Americans, Russians, Kazakhs, Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis devastated by the nuclear weapons production and testing cycle) must be central to our understandings and to the meaning of nuclear weapons, and in the struggle to eliminate them.

As you read his book, think systemically. Remember that on at least twenty occasions since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during crises and wars, U.S. presidents have threatened to initiate nuclear war. Remember that the United States' first-strike nuclear war doctrine has recently been reinforced by the Bush Doctrine of "Preemptive attack," which includes attacks against non-nuclear nations. Bear in mind too that this murderous model has been internalized by other nations. Russia, France and Britain cling to their nuclear arsenals and to the ability to annihilate humankind as the last remnants of their former imperial glory. Possession of nuclear weapons has become the symbolic coin of national sovereignty and diplomatic power. Thus China, India, Pakistan, and Israel have joined the nuclear "club." And, as we learned in the spring of 2002, even the colorless LDP rulers of Japan in Tokyo now believe that the only nuclear-bombed nation should also become a nuclear weapons state.

As you read Yamaguchi-san's book, the fundamental evil of these systems of nuclear terror, the states and societies that threaten their use becomes unavoidable. So, too, does the imperative of nuclear weapons abolition.

Yamaguchi-sensei also shows us that "alone nothing can be done", and he provides a clear, detailed, and compassionate history of the creation of Nihon Hidankyo and Gensuikyo. The names, stories, and spirits of those who, with Yamaguchi, built these organizations and movements with him makes fascinating reading. And, along the way, there are gentle stories that illuminate how Cold War divisions and prejudices often blinded people and posed obstacles that prevented or hindered people of good faith from collaborating across imperial and ideological boundaries.

Yamaguchi reminds (or for those who haven't heard, teaches) us that throughout the U.S. military occupation that lasted until 1952, the Japanese people were forbidden to research, write, broadcast or hold meetings about what had happened to the people and cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the confluence of the 1954 U.S. Bikini H-Bomb test that irradiated the people of Rongelap Atoll, Japanese fishermen and their catch, with the first years of post-occupation freedoms of speech and assembly, and the suffering of the Hibakusha that ignited and fueled the modern Japanese peace movement.

For those who have difficulty remembering specific demands or who need lessons in perseverance, Yamaguchi spells it out clearly: It was in June 1956 that the precursor of Nihon Hidankyo adopted a three-point resolution calling for the building of a movement to resist atomic and hydrogen bombs, for government funded medical treatment and self-reliance for Hibakusha, and for compensation for the Hibakusha and their families. Yamaguchi goes on to explain how he and the abolitionist movement painfully came to understand that they would not prevail unless they embraced resistance to the U.S.-Japan military alliance and to the continued U.S. military occupation of Japan, which continues to this day in the form of more than a hundred U.S. military bases and installations that continue to undermine Japanese security, sovereignty, and freedom.

Yamaguchi-san's memoir includes threads of travel and engagement with the wider world from his first journey from the small island village of Arakawago to Nagasaki, an illicit train ride from Nagasaki to Tokyo, and on to Europe, Russia, the United States and the United Nations. There is also the understated theme of Yamaguchi-san's role as a representative, leader, and honored citizen of Nagasaki! He is sent to speak in Nagasaki's name at national and world forums, and no reader will be untouched by the symbolic importance of his wedding and the ways the local press went out of their way to support, as well as to cover, it.

This being the autobiography of an island man of an island nation, the sea is a constant, if quiet presence. His description of his first swim after the apocalypse is heartbreaking, heartwarming, and unforgettable. Like much in Japanese culture and Yamaguchi-san's life, it too was a result of community support and solidarity.

In remarkably open and honest ways, Yamaguchi describes two particularly disturbing legacies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings, the suicides of Hibakusha and the notorious ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission).

For more than fifty years, suicide has stalked the lives of the survivors of the both the Atomic and Nazi holocausts. There are rumors that this or that noble Hibakusha attempted - maybe several times - to kill him or herself. We wonder how can this be. In describing his own failed attempt to end his suffering, Yamaguchi provides the explanation: "on the surface," he tells us, "the damage of the bombing is becoming less and less visible….However, for Hibakusha, mental and physical wounds remain. They will never disappear….Many Hibakusha have been on the edge of life, like walking on a thin rope. For them, living is as painful as dying." It is here that he lets us know in unmistakable terms that "For Hibakusha the campaign against A and H Bombs has been one of the reasons for not throwing away their lives."

Yamaguchi devotes two chapters to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and its successor, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, two little known institutions devoted to the research of the effects of radiation on human beings. Here Yamaguchi's voice joins those of countless Hibakusha who rage that U.S. doctors and scientists who visited and conducted tests on them, while refusing to provide desperately needed medical treatment, used them as guinea pigs. As cruel as U.S. foreign and military policy have been, this is a charge that has been difficult for U.S. Americans, even peace activists, to accept.

The disturbing truth is that Yamaguchi and his comrades are absolutely correct in making this accusation. In 2000, shortly after the United Nations' NGO Millennium Forum in New York, I helped to arrange a meeting for two leading Japanese Hibakusha, Dr. Shoji Sawada and Junko Kayashige, Rev. Sanai Hashimoto of Japan Council of Religionists for Peace, and U.S. downwinder Claudia Peterson to meet with the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the man responsible for overseeing all U.S. government studies on the impacts of radiation. It was one of those formally polite, sometimes honest, and all too frustrating meetings with government officials. Nonetheless, the meeting provided me the opportunity to ask him to clear the record by responding to the Hibakusha's long-time accusations that the ABCC has used them as guinea pigs. I was amazed when he confirmed that what the Hibakusha have been saying is absolutely correct. The ABCC studies have, he said, been used to study everything, including how best to design new nuclear weapons.

Finally, there is the tragic truth that absence can be presence, a vacuum a totality. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their creations vaporized, scorched, poisoned and decimated in August 1945 continue to haunt humanity.

In recent years, as Hibakusha, peace activists, pilgrims and politicians join the annual official commemoration of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, the most eloquent statement may be one of absence and silence. Throughout the ceremony, behind a sign that reads "A-BOMB SURVIVORS (WITH INVITATIONS)" stand rows of empty seats. Some, like Yamaguchi-san, have long refused to participate, resenting what empty words and speeches that rarely begin to name the enormity of what they suffered and lost. They are pained that the commitment to actually abolish the infernal machines that plunged them into Hell and which threaten human survival is missing.

The empty seats are also testimony to the reality that, year by year Hibakusha are succumbing to Time and to the A-Bomb. We are gradually losing their searing memories, prophetic warnings and profound sense of urgency.

Even as Yamaguchi-san and other Hibakusha surprise us, and perhaps themselves, with their passion for life and their will to live, all too soon the day will arrive when he and his courageous comrades will no longer be with us.

Thus we face one more of our most urgent moral tasks: to learn all that we can from the Hibakusha. To our great fortune, Yamaguchi Senji has blessed us with this autobiography which speaks, cries, shouts and sometimes laughs essential truths through the murderous lies, censorship and banalities that are the Praetorian guards of the nuclear powers. His voice and spirit have shaken the nuclear (dis)order.

August 2002
Joseph Gerson

(1) "-san" is a Japanese suffix attached to a person's name. It is an honorific that is used for both men and women, married or unmarried.
(2) "Sensei" literally means "teacher," and "-sensei" after a person's name usually means that he/she commands the respect of the speaker.
(3) "Gaijin" means "foreigner." Literally it means "outsider."




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