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'I killed Mom': Hiroshima survivor's painful memories revived for anti-war paper play

KANAZAWA -- A group in the central Japan prefecture of Ishikawa has completed a "kamishibai" paper play based on the experience of a hibakusha, or A-bomb survivor, whose guilt at leaving his mother behind in a fire caused by the atomic bomb led him to a lifelong pursuit of realizing a world without war or nuclear weapons.

    The paper play is based on the memories of Mikiso Iwasa, who served as an adviser to the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo) and passed away in September aged 91.

    This image shows a boy escaping a fire while leaving behind his mother who was trapped under their collapsed home, in a "kamishibai" paper play based on the memories of late A-bomb survivor and activist Mikiso Iwasa. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    A group of hibakusha and volunteers in Ishikawa re-created illustrations of the kamishibai, a kind of picture-board storytelling, made by elementary school students who interviewed Iwasa 30 years ago. They also re-arranged the content to make it easier to understand, and intend to present it again with the hope that "each and every person who sees the paper play passes on the baton of peace."

    In the paper play, a young boy is seen standing transfixed in front of a house engulfed in flames. His mother is crushed under it and bleeding from her forehead. The boy pleads, "Mom, please move somehow!" to which she replies, "I can't, there's something holding down my shoulder."

    Although he tries to remove the pillar keeping her down, it doesn't budge. "Mom, it's no good! The fire is already coming!" he tells her. "Then go, get out quickly." Biting his lip, the boy then says, "Mom, I'm sorry. I'll throw myself at a U.S. navy ship and see you again." He runs away leaving his mother behind; as he goes he hears her chanting the heart sutra.

    On Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Iwasa was in the garden of his house -- 1.2 kilometers away from the hypocenter -- and thrown to the ground by the blast. The scene in the paper play depicts the immediate aftermath of the bombing and his attempts to save his mother before being left with no choice but to leave her behind.

    Members of a group that created a "kamishibai" paper play based on the memories of A-bomb survivor Mikiso Iwasa are seen reenacting a scene where the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, in the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Dec. 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    At the time, Iwasa was a 16-year-old junior high school student. He was a typical boy of the period who received militaristic education, and believed he could protect his family by dying for Japan in a suicide mission to throw himself at enemy troops' military vessels and tanks.

    The day after the bomb fell he arrived at his aunt's house. There, he broke down crying and told her, "I killed Mom." His mother's body was dug up a few days later. It looked like a mannequin that had been coated in coal tar and burnt, and the sight made Iwasa feel his mother had been killed not as a human being but as an object. His 12-year-old sister had been mobilized for labor services, and her body was never found. His father had already died from illness, and Iwasa was made an A-bomb orphan.

    In 1988, sixth graders at Kanazawa municipal Jyuichiya elementary school made the kamishibai. It consists of 48 picture boards, and was put together after they spent two days listening to Iwasa, who was a professor at Kanazawa University committed to hibakusha endeavors as chairman of the "Ishikawa A-bomb survivor society" -- which he formed with a circle of friends -- tell them about his life. The paper play was performed a number of times in front of children and other audiences, and later stored in a Tokyo college by researchers who received it from the students' homeroom teacher.

    The paper play's return to the spotlight came in autumn 2019. It was suggested among the members of the Children's Peace Committee, which created a CD for a song themed after the Kanazawa Children's Peace Monument commemorating atomic bombing victims, that kamishibai plays could be a good way to convey hibakushas' thoughts. As they discussed the matter, one member apparently recalled the 30-year-old paper play.

    This May 27, 2016, file photo, shows Mikiso Iwasa, right, pictured next to then-U.S. President Barack Obama, left, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the city's Naka Ward, during the former president's visit to Hiroshima. (Mainichi/Tsutomu Koseki)

    Some 10 committee members aged from their 20s to their 80s, including A-bomb survivors and former teachers, came together once a month to work on the paper play. Out of consideration for children's attention span, the picture boards were reduced to 26. Clear explanations were added to unfamiliar terms such as "building dispersal," which refers to the removal of buildings to prevent fire spreading in air raids and other attacks, and "militaristic drills," which was combat training done at schools.

    Iwasa, who was a representative committee member of Nihon Hidankyo, took part in a petition for the implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and was a hibakusha representative at a ceremony held when then-U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016. A newly added in scene in the play shows Iwasa shouting, "Mom, Yotchan, I did it," to his mother and younger sister in heaven after the United Nations adopted the nuclear arms prohibition treaty in 2017.

    A test version of the play was shown to elementary school teachers and others at the end of August. The paper play was completed on Nov. 15, following a series of careful revisions, including having prefectural residents who experienced the atomic bombing alter the script to be faithful to the Hiroshima dialect.

    After retiring from his professorial post at Kanazawa University, Iwasa moved to Chiba, east of Tokyo, for his activities at Nihon Hidankyo. Takeshi Ota, 28, a member of the team that created the paper play, said, "I'm very happy to be able to pass down the messages left behind by Iwasa, with whom I've never spoken directly, in the form of a paper play. I'd like the play to offer children the opportunity to think about peace and nuclear arms." It is set to have its first public showing in the city of Kanazawa in February 2021.

    The paper play is also sold as a set costing 2,000 yen (about $19), including tax. To learn more, please call the Children's Peace Committee administrative office on 090-2374-8784 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Chinatsu Ide, Hokuriku General Bureau)

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