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Nagasaki A-Bomb survivor learns ancient instrument to express sorrow to children in song

Miyoko Yamaguchi practices the hymn "God Be With You Till We Meet Again" on an ocarina in Fukuoka's Minami Ward on Feb. 15, 2023. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

FUKUOKA -- Ninety-one-year-old Miyoko Yamaguchi drew a deep breath and began to play the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, and the room filled with its warm sounds. Yamaguchi, a resident of Fukuoka's Minami Ward, is being taught by an ocarina performer out of a desire to express her painful memories of the Nagasaki A-bombing with a song of her youth.

    The song is "God Be With You Till We Meet Again," a hymn she sang when other students of her generation were being sent off to war. Seventy-eight years ago, as a third-year student at the Nagasaki Prefectural Nagasaki Girls' High School, Yamaguchi was sent to work at Mitsubishi Nagasaki Arms Factory's Ohashi Plant. Alongside the girls, boys from the former Daishichi High School (now Kagoshima University) in the city of Kagoshima were also there. Her job was to carefully transcribe torpedo part designs sketched up by the boys.

    She remembers the boys singing their dormitory's song, "Hokushin naname ni," meaning "At an angle to the North Star," over and over.

    "They all got into a circle and sang together. That was our youth," Yamaguchi recalled.

    She will never forget singing "Hokushin naname ni" in Nagasaki alongside the boys to see off their senior classmate, who had advanced from high school to the former Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) and was being drafted into the war. While other students sang "gunka," or military songs for their farewells, Yamaguchi and the boys from Daishichi also sang "God Be With You...," an American hymn from the latter half of the 19th century. During breaks at the Ohashi Plant, she learned the song from other girls' school students, and they would all sing together.

    Yamaguchi does not recall why they did not turn to military songs for their farewells. "Until the day we meet again," the lyrics go, and bound up with the sentiment, "come back alive" as it is, the hymn has stuck with her ever since.

    Those youthful days were shattered in an instant. It was Aug. 9, 1945. When the atomic bomb was dropped just 1.3 kilometers away, the plant was engulfed in its searing flash. The ceiling above Yamaguchi's head shattered and collapsed. While some including Yamaguchi barely survived, taking refuge under their desks, others were killed by falling steel girders.

    Around 30 of the students and others made an arduous journey to a house about 3 kilometers from the hypocenter, where they spent the night. There, Daishichi boys sang dormitory songs and the girls sang hymns. "We felt that it was easier to get our feelings across through song, rather than by talking about our tragic experience," Yamaguchi said.

    Her father, then a 39-year-old vice principal at an elementary school, died one month after the bomb was dropped. He had symptoms including a high fever and spots all over his body.

    When she visited the home of a classmate she hadn't heard from, she was told, "That girl died. We don't even know where her body is." That was the first time Yamaguchi felt guilty for surviving.

    After the war, Yamaguchi moved away from Nagasaki when her company worker husband was transferred to Fukuoka. With the help of Fukuoka's "hibakusha," or atomic bomb survivors, she has been able to speak about her experiences since her mid-20s, and she has visited elementary and middle schools every year, mainly during summer. After speaking, the children write down their impressions. She was brought to tears when one child wrote, "I have friends and a seat at school. These things are just normal, but right now, they make me happy."

    Now in her 90s, Yamaguchi wants to use the time she has left to communicate more with children. With that wish in mind, she asked ocarina performer Hiroyuki Yamaguchi of Fukuoka, who had provided music at one of her lectures, to teach her how to play the instrument.

    Yamaguchi thinks she'll perform "God Be With You Till We Meet Again" in front of the children at her lectures this summer. "I want them to know there was a time when we all sang together and looked forward, even when we were sad. By sharing the song, I feel that for the first time, my testimony will take shape."

    (Japanese original by Shizuka Takebayashi, Kyushu News Department)

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