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Ex-residents recall souls resting at Hiroshima peace park as G7 leaders visit

Seiso Yoneda watches TV news reporting the G7 leaders' visit to Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, in this photo taken in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on May 19, 2023. (Mainichi/Yasutoshi Tsurumi)

HIROSHIMA -- Peace Memorial Park is a leafy green expanse in the heart of this Japanese city, serene if also somber. But before the trees and grass and memorials, this place was an urban neighborhood. And on May 19, as the Group of Seven leaders visited the park together for the first time, some of its former residents took a moment to remember its bustling streets and the energy of the people who called them home, before it was all reduced to an ashen desert by the August 1945 U.S. atomic bombing.

    The Hiroshima G7 summit "is a good opportunity for the world to think about nuclear weapons. It's such a shame that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not here," said 87-year-old Seiso Yoneda over and over as he watched the G7 leaders setting foot in the park and praying for the A-bomb victims live on TV.

    Peace Memorial Park was once the Nakajima neighborhood, one of Hiroshima's leading entertainment quarters with many shops, cafes, wholesalers, clinics and temples. It was home to about 4,400 people in some 1,300 households, according to a chronicle of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

    Yoneda, now a resident of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, was born in 1935 as the first of four children to a family running a dye shop in the district. It was located about 100 meters east of the spot where the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims now stands, where the G7 leaders laid flower wreaths on May 19.

    "Near our shop stood a company in a concrete building. Rickshaws would come and go, and it was bustling around here," Yoneda recalled. His favorite place to play in his childhood was the Motoyasu River running east of what is Peace Memorial Park today, close to his home. "At low tide, a wider part of the riverbed would emerge, where I used to play sumo and fish with my friends."

    Even as a child, he felt the deepening shadow of World War II creep over the neighborhood. Soldiers set to be sent to war zones were staying at a nearby Japanese-style inn. To comfort them, he and other elementary school students would often be called to sing songs with lyrics cheering them on their departure.

    On Aug. 5, 1945, the day before the atomic bombing, a then 9-year-old Yoneda returned to the suburbs of Hiroshima where he had evacuated to avoid air raids. His father, Yoshikiyo, 38, saw him off as his son left their home. That was the last time he saw his dad. In mid-August that year, remains apparently belonging to his father were found in the A-bomb blasted ruins of their home, along with his favorite pipe.

    Yoneda himself was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb when he returned to the city center to search for his father. The streets of Nakajima and beyond were permeated with a clinging stench, and the rivers and roads were filled with bodies.

    "Even now, I don't want to remember what I saw then. The atomic bomb deprives us of everything," he said. As he watched a live TV news feed of G7 leaders standing quietly before the cenotaph, he covered his face with his hands.

    Another former Nakajima resident, Ryoga Suwa, was born and grew up at the district's Jyouhouji temple. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Ryoga, then 12, had already been evacuated outside the city with other schoolchildren. But the temple doubling as home was destroyed. He lost both his parents and his older sister to the bomb.

    After the war, he rebuilt the temple in Hiroshima's Naka Ward through a land exchange for the construction of Peace Memorial Park. As the then chief priest of the temple, Ryoga would chant sutras in front of a peace Kannon statue erected at the new park every year on the Aug. 6 atomic bombing anniversary to mourn the victims. He would tell his adoptive son, Gien Suwa, "I don't want you to forget the fact that there are people's souls resting beneath the park's stone pavements." Ryoga passed away in 2019 at age 85, and Gien, now 50, succeeded him as chief priest.

    On May 19, G7 leaders listened to Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the memorial park as he explained about the cenotaph, just 20 meters east of where Jyouhouji temple had been.

    Watching the scene on TV, Gien said, "I feel as if seeds were sown. I'd like to keep an eye on how their (G7 leaders') experiences in Hiroshima today will be reflected in their respective countries' policies moving forward."

    (Japanese original by Kensuke Yaoi, Hiroshima Bureau, and Yasutoshi Tsurumi, Matsuyama Bureau)

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