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A Way to Keep Memories Alive

For Hiroshima Bomb Survivors


By JONATHAN SOBLE

HIROSHIMA, Japan Hiromi Hasai


was being trained to make machine gun
bullets when the flash from the atomic
bomb that destroyed his city lit up the
already bright morning sky. Just 14, he
had been pulled from school a week be
fore to help Japans failing war effort.
Mr. Hasai, now 84, has often talked
publicly of his experiences that day, 70
years ago Thursday, when the first of
the only two nuclear weapons ever used
in war ultimately killed more than
100,000 people. The victims included
hundreds of his classmates, who were
still at their school near the blasts epi
center. The bullet factory, 10 miles out of
town, was paradoxically a haven.
Yet the things that Mr. Hasai saw and
felt that day are not recounted by him
alone. The person who knows his story
best, after Mr. Hasai himself, is Ritsuko
Kinoshita, a woman 25 years his junior
who is serving as his "denshosha
the designated transmitter of his memo
ries. It is part of an unusual and highly
personal project to preserve and pass
on the experiences of atomic bomb sur
vivors, whose numbers are dwindling
rapidly.
Mr. Hasai, a retired university phys
ics researcher with a quick and in
fectious laugh, is still healthy, as are
many of the survivors. But the object for
Ms. Kinoshita and roughly 50 other vol
unteer denshosha is to keep telling the
stories they have inherited once the wit
nesses become too frail to do so, to keep
alive memories of a traumatic event
that has anchored the pacifist sentiment
that has pervaded the country ever

since.
Today, however, the depth of that sen
timent is being severely tested. Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe, the first Japanese
leader born after the war, is working to
loosen restrictions on Japans military
power imposed by the victorious Allies.
He is not the first prime minister to seek
more freedom of action for Japan, but
he is taking the project a step further
than his predecessors. Three genera
tions after the conflict, he argues that
Japan has earned the right to be a more
normal country.
While some of his proposals have
generated widespread opposition no
tably a bill now before Parliament that
would allow the government to dispatch
forces abroad to back up the United
States military the war no longer
casts the shadow it once did.
Even in Hiroshima, memories are
fading, said Hidemichi Kawanishi, a
history professor at Hiroshima Univer
sity. There has been much hand-wringing, he said, over a survey released this
week by NHK, the national public
broadcaster, showing that 30 percent of
the citys residents could not name the
date the bomb was dropped. (Nation
wide, 70 percent could not cite the date.)
It is a trend that many survivors and
their denshosha would like to reverse,
or at least slow. Ms. Kinoshita has spent
years at Mr. Hasais side as he has ad
dressed groups of students, educators
and visitors to Hiroshimas Peace Me
morial Museum, near the skeletal mon
ument of its Atomic Bomb Dome.
She can describe how he and his
young fellow workers did what they

STANLEY TROUTMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS (TOP); CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES

Hiroshima, Then and Now


As Japan commemorates Aug. 6,1945, when the United States
dropped the atomic bomb, a view of Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Park this week and the site a month after the strike. Japan is
trying to keep survivors stories alive. Page A4.

KO SASAKI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Hiromi Hasai, 84, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with Ritsuko Kinoshita, his denshosha the official guardian of his memories.
could for the ghost people who poured
from the city in the hours after the
bombing, many with burns so horrific
that their flesh fell away when they
were touched. She recounts his walk
back to town through ruined, corpsefilled streets to find his mother and sis
ter, who miraculously also survived.
Im trying to recount his life and his
way of thinking as purely as possible,"
she said.
The number of officially recognized
survivors of the nuclear attacks fell by
about 6,000 last year, and is now below
200,000. Their average age is over 80.
Professor Kawanishi called the denshosha project, supported by the cityfunded museum, an attempt to preserve
some of the moral and emotional influ
ences wielded by those with direct ex

perience of the bomb. Although many


survivors have left records of their ex
periences in memoirs and documenta
ries, which are widely available to the
public, they often end up treated as dry
historical records.
The denshosha are essentially
putting themselves in the position of
that person, so the survivor doesnt per
manently disappear, he said. They
have an authority that comes with the
survivors blessing to be heirs to their
stories, he said, and a mandate to keep
finding audiences. Survivors often visit
schools, for instance, something den
shosha could do in their place.
Its a very interesting experiment in
forming and preserving collective mem
ories, Professor Itewanishi said.
So far that experiment is a small one.

Ms. Kinoshita, a former tour guide, has


known Mr. Hasai for nearly 20 years,
since she began giving volunteer tours
at the Peace Memorial Museum in her
spare time. But the museum did not
start recruiting formal denshosha until
2011. So far 13 bomb survivors have
agreed to be paired with one or more
denshosha, who are required to spend
at least three years shadowing and
meeting with the survivor before telling
their stories in public. One of the survi
vors has since died.
Ms. Kinoshita and Mr. Hasai say they
have faced criticism from survivors not
involved in the project, who question
whether someone who did not experi
ence the bomb directly can claim to
speak for those who did. Others say
such a role should be reserved for fam
ily members. Some denshosha are chil
dren of the survivors, but many are not,
and children are not always willing or
able to be public representatives of their
parents suffering.
I ve been told more than once that 1
have no right to tell their stories, Ms.
Kinoshita said, before leaving to guide a
group of high school students around
the Atomic Bomb Dome, armed with
Mr. Hasais memories. When she
speaks to groups in the museums lec
ture halls, she says, she shows them a
PowerPoint presentation based largely
on his recollections.
Mr. Hasai said training successors to
tell survivors stories was better than
"having them fade into old fairy tales.
He said he would like to see the pro
gram expanded to allow denshosha to
tell the stories of people who died years
earlier, but who left records in the years
soon after the war that are now in the
museums archives.
There are all kinds of records, but
how many people actually seek them
out? he said. The freshest memories
are stuck in an archive."