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Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2000

Sowing authentic 'seeds of peace'

HIROSHIMA WITNESS FOR PEACE: Testimony of A-Bomb Survivor Suzuko Numata, by Chikahiro Hiroiwa. Translated by Tadatoshi Saito. Tokyo: Soeisha Books/Sanseido, 1,000 yen.

Thirty-six years ago, not two decades after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Kenzaburo Oe was already writing about the imperative to remember that appalling event. It sounds trite -- a hazard that attends memorials to all great tragedies, from Hiroshima to the Holocaust -- but Oe was getting at two important things: first, that people do tend to forget, or repress, traumas of this magnitude; and second, that the act of remembering doesn't occur in a void. It is shaped by context: who is doing the remembering and what they choose to remember.

Oe was aware in 1963, when he began writing about Hiroshima, that the two atomic bombings of Japan had been hijacked by the Cold War and by Sino-Soviet antagonisms. The power of nuclear weapons, he wrote, gets more attention than the misery they cause. Far from renouncing such weapons, the nuclear nations were caught up in a race to see who could stockpile the most and the biggest. The Hiroshima bomb, in this context, was remembered not as a warning, but as a bit of a joke: Call that a bomb! That was a toy! By the 1960s, the weapon of choice -- the hydrogen bomb -- was thousands of times more powerful than the bombs that had vaporized two Japanese cities.

Even the antinuclear movement that had grown up out of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had split into factions under the enormous ideological pressures of the postwar period. The "evil" of nuclear weapons was no longer an absolute, but varied with ownership. Theories of deterrence also masked the horror with a kind of political respectability. The original human experience, Oe felt, was already being lost, not 20 years after the events that should have shut down all arguments. It is said that when the physicist Niels Bohr arrived at Los Alamos in 1943, his one worry was that the bomb wasn't big enough -- big enough, that is, to end the prospect of world war once and for all. He was right.

Fifty-five years on, the situation is not much better. The Cold War is over, China and Russia have patched up many of their differences, the United States stands alone -- yet there are more nuclear weapons in the world, not fewer, and some are in the hands of regimes of questionable stability. The imperative to "remember Hiroshima" is as urgent as ever. But the tough question remains: What form should remembrance take?

In "Hiroshima Notes," written between 1963 and 1965, Oe attempted to recover -- or discover -- the root meaning of the atomic bombing, which he saw quite simply as "the thoughts of those who underwent that unprecedented experience." For him, this meant meeting and talking with survivors and with those, like the doctors of Hiroshima, who were attempting to help them. Ironically, he soon found that most of the survivors were too busy struggling to get on with their lives to want to discuss that horrific day in 1945. Oe, struck by their dignity, acknowledged what he called "their right to remain silent," but at the same time stressed the absolute necessity of talking about Hiroshima. Silence, he felt, just let the nuclear powers -- not to mention the Japanese government -- off the hook, paving the way for worse.

"Hiroshima Witness for Peace" should be read in this context. In the mid-'60s, a middle-aged woman named Suzuko Numata was one of the majority of A-bomb survivors who had understandably chosen to keep silent about Aug. 6, 1945. This book, written by a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, tells the story of how she gradually changed her mind and became one of Hiroshima's best-known witnesses, speaking to hundreds of groups of students and other visitors every year.

What is most interesting about her story, however, is the extent to which its conclusions outstrip even Oe's. "Peace" is indeed paramount, Numata insists, but she discovers in the course of her self-appointed mission for peace that it cannot remain an abstraction: If peace is to be achieved, it is not possible to avoid asking why the bomb was dropped. Bombs don't fall into a void, but they don't drop from a void, either.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Numata was 22, a worker in the Hiroshima Post and Telecommunications Bureau. As she herself recalls, she was "a prowar girl," like all her friends. None of them, she recalls, knew anything about the brutal cost to other Asian peoples of Japan's program of military expansion. When the bomb struck, Numata was trapped under blocks of fallen concrete. Three days later, her gangrenous left leg had to be amputated at the thigh, without anesthetic. It took her years to recover any interest in life, but eventually she became a home economics teacher, working at her old high school for 28 quiet years, never mentioning the bomb.

"She had made a peaceful life for herself," writes Chikahiro Hiroiwa, "and she wanted to keep it that way."

The turning point came in 1981 when she was asked to participate in a film documentary about survivors, based on footage shot in late 1945 and early 1946 by a U.S. survey team. Numata had been identified as one of the subjects in the research film. Embarrassed and reluctant at first, she eventually agreed -- and found, at the age of 57, a new calling. As the decades passed, Numata told her story to thousands.

The key to her personal recovery, as she saw it, was the day she first noticed the "aogiri" trees in the grounds of the Posts and Telecommunications Bureau where she had worked during the war. It was 1947, not long after she had attempted suicide. These trees, she explained, had been hollowed out, virtually turned to charcoal, by the thermal rays of the A-bomb. Yet on this day, Numata saw that the aogiri had put out tiny green shoots. To her, it was a miracle -- and a model for the way she wanted to live. If the trees could survive and recover, she told her audiences under the aogiri, now transplanted to the Peace Park, so could she. So could anybody. And like seeds from the burned aogiri, human beings could become individual "seeds for peace."

As the literature of inspiration goes, this is all fairly standard. And in the early years of her life as an inspirational speaker, Numata (at least as we see her through Hiroiwa's lens) appeared to offer a conventional mix of self-help and antiwar exhortations, tailored to sympathetic Japanese audiences. Where her story takes an electrifying turn is when she started to travel to other Asian countries -- South Korea, China, Malaysia, the U.S. -- as a member of the peace and antinuclear movements. She found that people in those places were not very interested in the Hiroshima version of peace, which, it seemed to them, was predicated on the idea that no one should ever again suffer what the Japanese had suffered at the hands of the Americans.

What about a peace predicated on the idea that nobody should ever again suffer what other Asians and Allied prisoners of war had suffered at the hands of the Japanese? What did Numata know about those events, they asked? As it happened, virtually nothing. But she set about finding out, and the "peace" she preached became more complex, beginning with apologies and ending with the declaration that peace can only grow out of truth. War, she said, citing her own experience, thrives on official lies and public ignorance.

If it sounds banal, stated thus baldly, her audiences nevertheless found it astounding. Here was this frail, elderly Japanese woman -- a war cripple herself -- saying things the leaders of her own country felt (and still feel) unable to say. Skeptics were thoroughly disarmed. Recriminations melted between individuals, as they have yet to do between governments. From Numata's point of view, this is essential groundwork: It is no use denouncing nuclear weapons without first understanding, and then defusing "at the grassroots level," the antagonisms that spawn them. "To testify to the facts," she says, "is to sow a seed of peace." That's easily said, much harder to do.

"Hiroshima Witness for Peace" is the story of a simple woman, simply told, as if to children. But the surface simplicity is deceptive. There is much to be learned from this unpretentious book about the real meaning of Hiroshima and the right way to remember it.

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