Nagasaki survivors: One of the most moving moments of my time in Japan, if not my life altogether, was speaking with a survivor of the Nagasaki atom bomb drop that took place in 1945. Shimohira Sakue was a child at a time.
I met Shimohira Sakue in the foyer of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Like many Japanese women, to my eyes, she looked young for her age. Young, slender, and immaculately groomed. She spoke quietly, so quietly that I struggled to hear her words, a quality quickly translated by the way the interpreter spoke. She bowed many times. And she graciously agreed to talk to me after she gave her presentation to local schoolchildren, the words from which I have written below.
I wondered about how to write this article and finally I decided to do this: to leave you with her words as she spoke to the schoolchildren, as they are.
There was a large light.
And then no-one came to rescue us.
You are here because you want to hear me talk about the bomb. But that is not why I am here.
Within a few years, all the survivors will be gone. And you will be left with TV pictures of fireworks in far off lands and your parents will try to remember what their parents thought of the war.
You want to hear about the bomb. But I want to talk to you about the war.
The war, really, is more important than the bomb. How life stops in war, even for those who survive.
You must learn about war and think about it. Because you and your generation will decide the future. And you should know what war is like.
In 1941, victory was assured. There was a festival feeling in the air but that was short lived. From that moment on everything got worse.
The red papers arrived for army recruitment. Food became scarce and we ate only a few beans or the husks but not the flour. We started to hear the sound of sirens more and more, waking in the nights, wearing hoods and running for the shelter.
Sometimes babies started to cry, their mothers pressing their mouths closed for silence as everyone said stay quiet, stay still. The enemy will hear us and find us. Sometimes those babies never made a sound again.
Some injured soldiers returned. And life was very difficult for them.
Please understand that at that time, they were seen to have failed Japan.
There were no remains returned.
At some point, my brother received his papers to become a kamikaze pilot.
He told me “maybe I’ll die as a soldier” as we hid in the shelter. He left me a nail in a box of matches, saying “Bury me if…”
My mother received word to collect his remains. I went with her. But the box we collected was empty.
There was no Sunday. And there was no Saturday.
We worked every day for the government. Those twelve years old and older worked from early morning to late at night. Students were displaced to run the weapon factories.
I was still at primary school, as was my friend, who wanted to be a doctor. He tried to study by night, by pinhole. It was one small dream to disappear in war. The chance to fulfil that dream.
We were hungry.
We ate grass.
We believed other cities to be the targets. And we knew of the atom bomb tests in (New) Mexico.
But Nagasaki had a close relationship with the rest of the world. Nagasaki was Japan’s gateway to the world. We thought that the United States would never choose us as a target.
Shelter to house.
House to shelter.
Shelter to house. The repetition of that was life every day.
Then came 8.15 on the 6th August. We didn’t know the numbers. But we were relieved it was not Nagasaki.
We heard the news at school and our routine continued.
Shelter to house. House to shelter.
We couldn’t buy rice. Our mother had gathered her most important kimono to try to get food. She left and I thought that it would be a good day. Because with the radish, I would have some rice.
On August 9th I went to school
At 11.02 there was a large light.
I fell down.
And then I came around to a cruel, cruel scenery. Terrible burns, scorched people, more light, more noise.
I couldn’t believe. I could not understand. How can I survive? Why?
I found my sister’s body. I wanted to carry her somewhere.
It was so scary, I didn’t know how. I couldn’t move her red, swollen body.
No-one came to rescue us.
Burned skin peeled off like a curtain or a rag cloth hanging down from our hands.
How could someone work as a rescue worker? Everyone suffered.
The insides of a body came out. It was scorched. Bloody. Piles of dead bodies.
I screamed. “Help us! Help me!” I couldn’t move my sister.
“If she belongs to you, you move her,” someone said.
I was ten years old.
Even three years later, life still was harsh. There were lots of suicides. And I longed to jump before a train.
Sometimes I heard a strange noise: the maggots in my sister’s arm.
It was hell.
She did commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a train.
I wanted to again but felt too scared. Finally, I realised that although I was the only one left alive, that I have to live.
Someone told me that world peace is helped by the atom bomb but I strongly disagree. I believe we should eliminate nuclear weapons.
My womb was later removed as a result of injuries.
You cannot live and you cannot die as a correct human being.
That is the war.
I hope for a wonderful life and that in the future you will live in a beautiful world. Don’t make, bring or use these weapons. We have to unite for world peace.
I depend on you.
Your generation should share and hand down this message.
Ask for world peace.
This (Nagasaki) should be enough. We should be the last survivors.
And when I die, there should be no more.
The children applauded and the room emptied out.
I owe a great deal of gratitude to Sakue herself, of course, for her time, patience and courage. I also need to thank the Nagasaki Tourism Board, JTB Kyushu and KLM, whose recent flight route connecting Amsterdam to Fukuoka has opened access between Europe and Kyushu.
As always, as ever, I remain free to write whatever I like on this site.
Thank you for reading. And much love to everyone you love,