Breaking the Silence
by Ayako Kozuka
The hibakusha--survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--are the only individuals in history to have directly experienced the horror of an atomic bombing. Their number includes not only Japanese but Koreans, Chinese and others who were in those cities.
On August 6, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I traveled there from my home in Kyoto to attend a memorial service for the atomic bomb victims and war dead. Offering my prayers for the victims, I renewed my pledge to work for nuclear abolition.
After the service I spoke with local students, sharing with them my memories of that day 60 years ago.
I was born in Hiroshima. My mother raised me on her own after my father passed away during my childhood. I was three kilometers from ground zero when the bomb was dropped. I was 16 years old and working as an administrative assistant at the Marine Headquarters. We had just finished our morning meeting.
There was a flash, and I felt myself being blown across the room. When I came to, my coworkers were lying all around me, and the entire horizon was raging flames. Miraculously uninjured, I tried desperately to give aid to people around me.
A young mother came up to me for help. Her whole body was burnt, and on her back was a headless baby. When she leaned over and grabbed my hand, the skin slipped right off her hands. I was so frightened I could not stop shaking.
It took me three days to reach home, making my way through the burning landscape. The hell I witnessed will never leave my mind.
Among the rubble of what used to be our house I found my mother, utterly distraught. Crying with relief to see me, she ran to our backyard to fetch something for me. It took me a moment to realize that the objects she placed in my hand were tomatoes. The radioactive rain had turned them black. I devoured them hungrily, my first meal in three days.
As I told my story to the children, tearfully speaking about the preciousness of peace, I thought about my long years of silence.
So many atomic bomb survivors keep their experiences of that tragedy to themselves, fearful of prejudice and discrimination. I was one of them. When I got married in 1947, I could not tell my husband's family that I was an atomic bomb survivor. My mother passed away soon after. The radiation destroyed her health. She was only 43 years old. I was suffering from the aftereffects myself; my white blood cell count had dropped to half the normal level. The fear of death was always with me.
I was also terrified of having children, not knowing what effects they would inherit. But I did become a mother, of a boy and three girls.
In 1958 a friend introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. As I fervently prayed to live to see my children grow up, my fear gradually gave way to an iron determination to live.
A year later, my white blood cell count was normal. My personal life and financial circumstances also began to improve.
Every year, though, August 6 would find me in tears, haunted by horrific memories. "Mom, why are you crying?" my children would ask me with puzzled looks. But I could not tell them. I did not want them to be discriminated against when the time came for them to get married or to find jobs.
A turning point came in 1965 when I accepted a position of responsibility in the local chapter of our Buddhist movement. By coincidence, it was on the day of the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
Reflecting on how my life had been revived through my Buddhist practice, I felt filled with gratitude and made a new resolve. I would live, I told myself, for the sake of peace and others' happiness.
Not long after, I first shared my experience of being an A-bomb survivor. It was at a meeting of local Soka Gakkai youth members. Breaking my 20-year silence, I described the atrocity of nuclear weapons as I had experienced it, and I spoke about the sacredness of life.
I was worried at how my children would react after discovering what I had been keeping from them. But afterwards they told me, "Mom, please share your story with others. And don't worry about us because we are fine and healthy."
After this, I began to engage in voluntary work. It ranged from speaking about my experience, to environmental protection, to book reading for children about peace. I even became the chairperson of the Kyoto Homemakers' League and traveled to China with their delegation in 1980.
Today, I and my four children are all active in the cause of peace. Each of them has built a happy family. My daughter was worried about the genetic effects of the A-bomb, but gave birth to a healthy baby, who is now grown up and working. I have eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, things I never imagined possible.
I feel so deeply grateful to be alive today, to have lived. I will continue to speak out for peace.
We must never let the tragedy of Hiroshima be repeated.
[Courtesy, July 2007 SGI Quarterly]