Elizabeth Chappell: What can we learn from talking to hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima)? Narrative and the ethics of memory in hibakusha life stories.


Elizabeth Chappell, 13 November 2018

On Tuesday November 6th, I gave a talk at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, University College, London for TRCU and UEL’s Centre of Narrative Research. The talk was about hibakusha orphans of Hiroshima. In Japanese, hibakusha means ‘atomic bomb person’ and the word for orphan is, child without parents, ryoshin no nai ko.

These were evacuee children from central Hiroshima, who survived the atomic bombing; however, when they returned to Hiroshima, they found their parents had died.

I had encountered Shoso Kawamoto, who was orphaned by the atomic bombing, and is now aged 84, in 2012.

Seventy- eight years old when I interviewed him in 2012, he is one of the few hibakusha storytellers left alive, of those who originally experienced the atomic bomb in 1945.

The hibakusha tell their stories at Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum, which was the brainchild of a hibakusha – Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a protestant minister and one of the protagonists of John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima. By 1948, Tanimoto had become convinced that, as Hersey writes, the ‘collective memory of the hibakusha might be a potent force for peace in the world and that, in Hiroshima, there ought to be a centre where the experience of the bombing could become the focus of international studies of means to ensure that atomic weapons would never be used again.’

The museum is now the source of most hibakusha accounts passed down to us through the media – whether through radio or television.

As a storyteller, Shoso was accustomed to talking about his experience to children and tourists gathered at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Peace memorial museum alongside many other hibakusha colleagues.

The format of such accounts would generally be that hibakusha would present their story as a lecture, standing on a dais in front of their audience in an auditorium. They would also use maps and slides as prompts. Starting with ‘This is my hibakusha experience’ as a way of bracketing off their story from the rest of their lives, they would list facts and numbers about hibakusha woven into their hibakusha experience of what is known in Hiroshima as ‘that day’, ‘ano hi’.

However, this time, I asked Kawamoto to focus his story on something slightly different. I said to him: ‘Could you tell me what your life was like as a child before the atomic bombing?’ Kawamoto paused for a moment, checking that he had understood correctly, with the interpreter Keiko Ogura.

As an interviewer of hibakusha I was helped by the fact I had worked in Japan and run interviews in that context before and that the interpreter for these interviews, was Keiko Ogura. She was the wife of the former director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum, Kaoru Ogura (b.1920 d.1979) and herself a hibakusha. She had lived with her family at Ushita, about 4 kilometres from ground zero — she also remembered ‘that day’ and could relate intimately to hibakusha experiences.

The story that emerged over the following three years came out of my growing rapport with Kawamoto was based on the fact that I had started my interview by asking about his childhood. In my study, ‘The Last Survivors of Hiroshima’, I argue that I could never have forged a rapport with those so different from myself – Japanese hibakusha – and had I not focused my first questions on childhood, and been lucky enough to find hibakusha who responded and warmed to this process of interview when I started out on my research.


A map of the centre of Hiroshima, which was bombed on 6th August 1945, showing the spread of blast and radiation

During follow-up interviews, Kawamoto revealed more and more about his life – about what it felt like to be a child in post-war Hiroshima. Before I met Kawamoto, I had no idea what being an atomic bomb orphan meant: I only had one image of children during the aftermath of the atomic bombing — a single photograph which was on display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

The image was of a young Japanese boy polishing the shoes of American GIs during the occupation era (1945-52). These were evacuee children from before the bombing, whose parents had stayed in downtown Hiroshima. The parents had been mobilized to clear


A Japanese hibakusha describing his experience to an audience at Friends House in London, October 2016.

away wooden buildings for firebreaks (the men), or they ran neighbourhood associations for rations and collected foodstuffs, since rations were down to the barest minimum (the women). They were under the bomb which had been targeted at the central residential district of Hiroshima, where over 90 percent of the population died within a week of the atomic bombing.

Almost all the parents of the evacuated children died, in addition to the youngest children and teenagers. In general, only 6-11 year olds and the infirm had been evacuated. These orphan children usually lived for six months after the bombing and then died due to lack of food. It was very unusual to find a member of this age group who was alive to tell their story.

Kawamoto had been born on 27 January 1934. He had been brought up in a strict neo-Confucian household, where boys were told to just study and girls were taught to help around the house. His parents were of different classes.

Kawamoto had a samurai mother and a farmer father. He had been evacuated to Miyoshi, a neighbouring prefecture, when the atomic bomb was dropped. His 16-year-old sister Tokie, picked him up the day after the atomic bomb and the pair returned to live in the bombed-out building of Hiroshima station together. Tokie had a job as a caretaker with Japan railways.

In February 1946, Kawamoto’s sister Tokie died. Then, not long afterwards, in March 1946, Kawamoto was adopted by a soy sauce manufacturer, Mr Kawanaka.

I was to find out that Kawamoto wouldn’t talk much about his formative years, between the ages of 12 and 23. When he reached the age of 23, which would have been in 1957 — he had attempted to get married, but his fiance’s family blocked the engagement because he had, by that time, received a hibakusha health certificate.

This proved he had come to Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb – when so many hibakusha had also returned to Hiroshima. So many hibakusha hid the fact they had been in the centre of Hiroshima, for fear of discrimination.

Kawamoto’s reticence about this period of his life showed that there was some difficulty and tension – which he wanted to avoid. But the silences as well as the speech, I found, were vital to his overall narrative identity – i.e. to the way he told his story in context.

Why would people discriminate against those who had been in the atomic bombing? asked one graduate participant in the research seminar I gave on Tuesday last.

The answer to that question lies both in the history and culture of Japan. When the atomic bomb was dropped, the Japanese authorities did their best to suppress any news about it: it would lower morale – after all Japan was still at war on 6th August 1945 and the authorities were not admitting defeat despite the desperate state of their empire and their people.

The cabinet – the ‘big six’ as they were known – sent a team to investigate and established, through one of their top physicists, that it was an atomic bomb; then they buried the news. But then Russia invaded the Japanese Empire by way of Manchuria and on August 8th and August 9th, the US dropped another atomic bomb over Nagasaki.

Now, it was impossible to bury the news. Instead, the Japanese used it to their advantage; they explained this was a ‘new type of bomb’ which ‘threatened to destroy civilisation’ – meaning that it was a particularly cruel weapon the enemy had developed, and therefore it offered an honourable way for the Japanese to surrender – for the sake of civilisation itself.

The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their atomic bomb victims became the icons of the ‘sacrifice’ the Japanese had made by surrendering. They were not forgotten — they had a peace memorial ceremony dedicated to the memory of the event every August 6th and 9th; but they were not specially helped either. Then, 12 years after the bomb, in 1957, an atomic bomb survivors’ relief law was passed.

By then, however, discrimination had set in.

What were the strange illnesses from which so many in the two cities had suffered and died? No one knew for certain. No diagnosis was given. Other hibakusha called the diseases ‘bomb disease’, but those who had not been in the bomb tended to use harsher terminology: ‘lazy person’s disease’.

The ‘pika’ was the name given to the bomb. No one mentioned the word ‘atomic bomb’ for years; the word was censored. The post-war memorial in Hiroshima to school-aged teenage children who were mobilized and died under the bomb was simply labelled E=MC2, an oblique reference to atomic energy.

The Allied forces, led by the US Occupying force, General McArthur, had censored all information, including the scientific and literary publications about the bombings – for instance film reels were confiscated, along with scientific specimens and doctors’ records. These were then shipped off to the US. The hibakusha, who were examined medically, for the famous Life Span study (the longest study of radiation effects in existence) were, in general, not interviewed for their experiences, except for a very few psychological studies.

Instead, the hibakusha were the unwelcome reminder of an unknown, unclassifiable event, something so unimaginable society tried to ignore it.

So, they kept quiet, often dying of multiple cancers, giving birth to deformed children, their bodies used for scientific research but not given proper respect. For a long time, until late 1950s, when the hibakusha health relief law was passed, they kept quiet.

Now of course, censorship has been lifted (formally in 1952-3 when the US pulled out of Japan), and so much has been done to publish memoirs and testimonies: meanwhile a genre called ‘atomic bomb culture’ has arisen.

So, it is very understandable that most hibakusha and/or their children do not want to talk about the experience. They have lived and suffered in silence so long.

Following this first interview, I went deeper into the interviewee process with Kawamoto. About six months after the atomic bombing, in August 2013, we re-visited the places Kawamoto had lived, played and studied as a child. The Japan bank, Kawamoto’s primary school, his family’s cemetery, as well as his family home were all within a square kilometre of ground zero – where 90-100 percent of the population had died. These stone buildings had survived the bomb, at least in part, so, working from these buildings outward, we could triangulate the area where Kawamoto had lived as a child.

Kawamoto responded best to my questions about his memories, on the spot, in the places where they had happened. Standing on the site of his former home, names of places from his childhood recurred to him. He remembered the restaurant near his home – it was called the Seiyoken. This was where he had bought a treat called ‘ice candee’; he also recalled the name of his father’s glass shop, the Miyazako.

He recalled his father’s war work was that of a fireman. Kawamoto senior was always on fire duty late at night. This was when the children enjoyed playing games at home, in his absence. They made toy guns and aeroplanes, they chewed up paper pellets to make bullets and shoved them into ‘toy guns’ with chopsticks.

Kawamoto had dreamt of becoming a zero-fighter. It was fun to drill: whenever there was an air-raid warning, children would run to the air-raid shelter, which consisted of a shallow hole dug into the street with room for about ten children.

At that point, a vicious ‘old woman’ had taught the boys how to use bamboo spears made out of laundry poles with which they attacked straw ‘American soldiers’.

There was strafing over the outskirts of the Hiroshima city: for instance, over the naval base of Kure. Kawamoto’s mother had encouraged Kawamoto to train. He would have liked to become a zero-fighter; but, as a child, when you trained for the military, there was no time left over to play games with your friends!

By the end of our walking conversation, Kawamoto looked relaxed and eager to tell me more. On a later occasion we shared lunch together with other hibakusha I had interviewed. All the hibakusha managed to share stories of their childhoods with one another and not only for my benefit. Kawamoto told me he had found his ‘ikigai’, his ‘reason to live’ in telling his story and was eager to go out and tell his story again. He was in high demand from schools far and wide, across Japan.

These interviews are part of many other memory-making practices which continue to this day. Surviving hibakusha in their 70s and 80s, work hard to remember parts of their lives they find it hard to talk about in the hope that it will touch the life of just one person.

Pierre Nora, the French landscape historian, writes of the sites of memory, that ‘there is no spontaneous memory’ (Les Lieux des memoire) and the phenomenologist, De Certeau, writes, ‘Memory is played by circumstances, just as a piano is played by a musician music emerges form it when its keys are touched by the hands. Memory is a sense of the other.’

In my interviews with Kawamoto, there were times when I and the hibakusha interpreter were the piano player, touching the keys, but there were other points when Kawamoto was the piano player. It was our encounter that mattered. By asking questions about Kawamoto’s childhood, I had established a sort of baseline: a common ground of shared experience from which other stories could emerge. As Henry Greenspan, veteran interviewer of holocaust survivors writes, with survivor Agi Rubin: ‘For remembering, I need your questions, the spark of conversation, fully to bring it out. Then memories take their shape and find their words. They emerge between us’. In dialogue, with all its implications of wrong turns and blind alleys — open vistas and shared travel, I was to discover what I could and couldn’t tell – what aspects of Kawamoto’s narrative were necessary for us to find a way to assemble Kawamoto’s narrative identity for this study.

Elizabeth Chappell is a PhD researcher at the Open University writing a PhD tentatively entitled ‘The Last Survivors of Hiroshima’. She has previously published a travel book on Japan https://www.travelbooks.co.uk/shop-online-books/japan


De Certeau M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life – Berkeley and Los Angeles – University of California Press 1984, pp86-8

Hersey J. (1985 [1946]) Hiroshima, Penguin, p 136.

Layman, L. (2009) ‘Reticence in Oral History Interviews’, The Oral History Review, Vol 36, 2, pp207-230

Nora, P. (1996) Realms of Memory, Rethinking the French Past under the direction of Pierre Nora: tr. Arthur Goldhammer, Vol 1, Columbia University Press, US.

Rubin A., and Greenspan H. (2006) Poetics Today 27:2, p43

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