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ICT helps A-bomb survivors, volunteers spread message of peace amid pandemic

Keiko Ogura, director of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, practices for the shooting of a video along with other members of the group, at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on July 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

While the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for many people to travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki from overseas or even from within Japan in some cases, survivors of the August 1945 atomic bombings of the cities, nonprofit organizations and travel agencies are putting information and communications technology (ICT) to use to pass down the stories of survivors and facilitate learning about peace.

    "Can you hear my voice? I'll start when I receive a cue," said Keiko Ogura, the 84-year-old director of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace (HIP), a group of volunteer interpreters and guides working to deliver Hiroshima's message of peace around the world. Ogura stood at the side of the Motoyasu River, a spot offering a view of the Atomic Bomb Dome, and smiled. When members of the group she was addressing online gave the OK, she turned toward the video camera and began introducing herself in fluent English.

    HIP's work has involved guiding tourists around the Peace Memorial Park in English and translating the testimonies of A-bomb survivors. Ogura commented, "Up until now we'd been in the position of welcoming people, but as a result of the coronavirus, we've come to actively send out a message."

    On the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing last year, testimonies of A-bomb survivors were livestreamed from near the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims via YouTube. This year, HIP set up a web page for English speakers on Aug. 6 to convey the message of peace.

    Keiko Ogura, director of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, practices for the shooting of a video along with other members of the group, at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on July 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

    Due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum remained closed for about six months and a half from the spring of 2020. According to the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, the number of visitors to the museum in fiscal 2019 reached a record high of 1,758,746 people, but the following fiscal year, after the outbreak of the virus, the figure fell to 328,590. The number of foreign visitors, in particular, dropped from 522,781 people in fiscal 2019 to just 12,192 in fiscal 2020 -- a 97.7% decline.

    The drop in the number of visitors directly affected HIP's activities. In 2007 it began lectures in English offering non-Japanese the chance to hear the testimonies of those who experienced the bombings, but with the decline in visitors, it could no longer continue them. Ogura divulged, "I considered suspending our activities, but then I thought that by incorporating ICT we could continue them without coming into contact with people. I want to create a framework under which we can carry on peace even in an age where there no longer are any survivors of the bombings left."

    The average age of HIP's members is over 60, but they held online meetings four to five times a month and discussed the direction of the website. On the day of the English website's launch, the group released five videos including explanations about the Atomic Bomb Dome and other monuments, as well as an introduction from Ogura. "I hope we can convey the messages to a broader scope of people than before and that many people can take an interest in Hiroshima," Ogura said.

    The pandemic has also had an effect on school trips to Hiroshima. According to the Hiroshima Municipal Government, about 92,000 people visited the peace memorial museum in groups, including on school trips, in 2020. This was a 72.1% drop from the previous year.

    Students at one junior high school in the city of Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, were due to make a trip to Hiroshima in September 2020 as a part of their peace learning, but the trip was canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus. The Hiroshima branch of major travel agency JTB Corp., however, collaborated with the nonprofit organization Peace Culture Village, and arranged a program connecting the school's classrooms with Hiroshima. The program ran for about two hours and the testimonies of A-bomb survivors were provided through video calls while computer graphics and other new technology were used to provide students with the streetscape near the A-bomb dome before and after the attack to give students a better sense of the damage.

    Luli van der Does of Hiroshima University's Center for Peace, responds to an interview through the videoconferencing software Zoom on July 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryohei Masukawa)

    Peace Culture Village director Tomonori Minami, 43, an employee of JTB's Hiroshima branch, commented, "If you just teach unilaterally it doesn't remain in the students' memories. The program was designed to create an opportunity for students to speak up and think independently. ... We plan to utilize this program as preliminary learning material even after the coronavirus has been brought under control."

    Luli van der Does, an associate professor at Hiroshima University's Center for Peace, commented that the new form of conveying a message of peace using ICT could be sufficiently put to use in the future in tandem with face-to-face meetings. She said memories of the bombings felt through the five senses foster a sense of participation, adding that she would first like to utilize digital technology to have people take an interest in Hiroshima, which would allow them to directly engage with survivors' memories when they visit Hiroshima. She stresses that it is important for related parties to combine their efforts to create such an environment.

    (Japanese original by Ryohei Masukawa, Osaka Regional News Department)

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