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Hibakusha: Former teacher tackles sharing A-bomb experience with future generations

Takashi Yamakawa, 80, reflects on his work sharing his experiences during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki against the backdrop of the remains of Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki Peace Park in Nagasaki, on April 27, 2017. (Mainichi)

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise. North Korea is showing no signs of backing down from a sixth nuclear weapons test, and the United States continues to deploy aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan. If war breaks out, there is no doubt that the victims will be innocent people.

The same was the case for World War II when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Amid growing uncertainty about nuclear weapons, the Mainichi lends an ear to the voices of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, in the Hibakusha Series. The first installment of the latest series begins with a former teacher who has not given up telling the story of his experience during the bombing of Nagasaki and advocating for peace.

* * * * *

Takeshi Yamakawa's expression turns stern when asked what he thinks the leaders of North Korea and the United States will do next. Now 80, the retired teacher and current vice-chairman of the Nagasaki prefectural atomic bombing survivor teachers' society is sitting in a cafe close to the point where the Nagasaki A-bomb detonated. He was just 8 when he experienced the blast first-hand.

"If the provocations (around the Korean Peninsula) continue to escalate, a military conflict could break out," he says, with a sense of crisis.

Yamakawa developed a palpable fear of war when he was a third-grade elementary school student. At the time, air raid sirens seemed to go off in the city every week. He held his breath as the blasts from the falling bombs shook the air raid shelter. As his body trembled in terror, he wondered, "Is today the day I'm going to die?" The final day he asked himself that question was August 9, 1945. Being 4.3 kilometers from the nuclear hypocenter saved Yamakawa's life, but the scenes that unfolded around the blast area he passed through afterwards are forever burned into his memory.

"I don't want anyone else to have memories like this," he says. Yamakawa became an elementary school teacher and stressed the importance of peace to his students for 36 years. Even after retirement, he continued to teach about peace as a part-time teacher for nine years at a private high school, and also worked as a guide telling groups of students from all over the nation coming to Nagasaki on school trips about his experience as an A-bomb victim.

For Yamakawa, who has spent his life teaching about peace, a Cabinet decision this March that stated the government could not reject the use of the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education -- the basis for Japan's pre-war education -- as teaching material also makes him uneasy.

At Yamakawa's wartime elementary school, the principal would don white gloves and, standing at the head of the auditorium, recite the rescript to all the students. Yamakawa and the other children would bend into a 90 degree bow and lower their head in a pose reflecting the highest degree respect while they listened. At the time, he didn't understand what was being said, but upon becoming a teacher himself, he came to know what he considers "egregious" content.

"It says to respect your parents and get along well with your siblings, which at first glance seems to be a positive message. But it really means that citizens should throw away their lives for the country and the emperor," Yamakawa says.

As a teacher, Yamakawa has touched upon the imperial rescript as a historical fact, but he never once considered using it as "educational material" as the Cabinet decision stated. He sees the government decision as trying to restore an educational ideology that should have ended with the invalidation and abolishment of the rescript by the Diet in 1948. "Doesn't this mean society is accepting a return to prewar ideals?" he wonders.

In April of this year, Yamakawa finished the manuscript for what will become his eighth, and in his own words possibly his last, work. He spent two years on a book tackling the theme of how the experiences of hibakusha should be taught to future generations. What will happen once all of the hibakusha pass away? What should hibakusha themselves be trying to communicate right now? Yamakawa summarizes these and other questions he has continued to battle with over the course of his career as an educator in the over 100-page manuscript.

With the possibility of nuclear tests and military action looming, Yamakawa feels that Japanese society is failing to realize the danger. Because of that, he only feels more strongly about his cause.

"As long as there is the chance that what happened 72 years ago might occur again, we hibakusha must continue sharing our stories about the reality of atomic bombing," he says. (By Yoshihito Asano, Nagasaki Bureau)

(This is Part 1 of an ongoing series.)

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