JAPANESE

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From Asahi Shimbun

Japanese version

So tell me... about Hiroshima
The War Deprived Me of Home
Kanji Yamasaki (male, 80 years old)
Fuchu-cho, Hiroshima
By Chika Akiyama (female)

photo Mr. Kanji Yamasaki, who looks after the North Tenjin-machi area monument. The names of atomic bomb victims there include his cousin Kentaro Yonekawa and his mother. (Photo courtesy of Naka Ward, Hiroshima)

photo Picture of Kentaro Yonekawa. Mr. Yamasaki always carries it with him. Kentaro died less than a month after the bombing.

The North Tenjin-machi monument is located in Peace Memorial Park, about 50 meters [164 feet] north of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Naka Ward, Hiroshima). The names of about 270 atomic bomb victims from the area are engraved in the monument. Almost every day, Mr. Kanji Yamasaki visits this monument. He takes water from the Motoyasu River flowing alongside the park as an offering for the dead.

Mr. Yamasaki's boyhood home was located near the present-day north entrance of the museum. His father died when he was a child. After that, he lived with his mother in a two-story leased house in Tenjin-machi (present-day Nakashima-machi, Naka Ward, Hiroshima). Crammed into that vibrant neighborhood were four hospitals, a big Japanese inn, a sewing factory and other businesses. In summer, children used to swim in the Motoyasu River. The sound of their playful laughter could be heard throughout the neighborhood.

"Peace Park is beautiful, but I don't feel nostalgic. The war even deprived me of my home." Almost 63 years have passed since that day. He talks to elementary and junior high school students who visit the park.

* * *

August 6, 1945. Mr. Yamasaki, who had entered university in Tokyo in the spring of that year, had been sent home to await orders. He was to report to his old Hiroshima Prefectural Junior High School 2 (Kanonhon-machi 2-chome, Nishi Ward) as a drill instructor. His aunt and five cousins, who had been evacuated from Nagoya, had just moved into his house a few days before.

His cousin Kentaro Yonekawa (then age 13) adored Mr. Yamasaki and called him "Nii-chan [Big Brother]." They played together at catching eels or throwing stones in the Motoyasu River. "He was like a little brother to me. It was the happiest time of my life." In the morning of that day they left home together as usual, and parted at the foot of a bridge, planning to play in the river after school.

He remembers that he greeted the female administrator on duty on the first floor and that he received a key from her. His next memory was of that evening: he was falling over outside the burned-down school. He must have been inside the school when the bomb was dropped. He might have fainted, but he couldn't have been unconscious the whole time. He had lost his memory, but he still doesn't know why. The location of the school was about 1.5 kilometers [0.9 mile] from the hypocenter.

Pushing his swollen eyelids apart with his fingers, he found before him many blackened objects in the shape of human beings. "America did this. Get back at them," a man was saying just as he fell over dead. "These are people. Something has happened," Mr. Yamasaki realized. Most of the deceased had misshapen faces with eyes bulging or tongues protruding out of them.

He noticed that his right thigh was hurting badly. Splinters of glass had been driven through his skin. He stayed all night at that place.

* * *

He headed home the next day, creeping along with the aid of a stick. It was hot, with the sun burning from above and shattered tiles scattered over the ground burning below. He moved along, attempting to avoid the dead as well as people crying out, "Help me!" At the bank of the Motoyasu River, he drank some water and ate some raw crabs he caught from under a stone.

  There was no sign of life in the quiet, deserted street near his home. Every now and then someone would walk past, arms hanging in front of them, naked. Their skin hung down off their bodies. He slept near his house alongside countless dead bodies, with the hope that "Everyone can return home."

On the 8th, he heard the sound of footsteps on tiles as someone was approaching him. "Nii-chan!" "Kentaro!" He took Kentaro in his arms. Kentaro clung to him, saying, "Don't go anywhere. Let's go back to Nagoya together." When the bomb was dropped, Kentaro seemed to have been walking toward Hiroshima Prefectural Junior High School 1 (present-day Hiroshima Kokutaiji High School). He did not appear to have any serious injuries. "It was the happiest moment in my life." He still thinks so.

The same day, Kentaro's father, who had come from Nagoya to look for him, took him back. Mr. Yamasaki stayed behind, saying, "I have to look for my mother."

When the war was over, his relatives said, "It seems Kentaro's hair has fallen out, and some spots have broken out on his body. He has to be hospitalized." Mr. Yamasaki himself had felt weak and suffered from persistent diarrhea. He tried to encourage himself, hoping he would be able to see Kentaro again. He found out later that Kentaro had passed away at the end of August, with his last words asking for "Nii-chan."

His mother's body was never found. In all, nineteen of his relatives died. Mr. Yamasaki was the only one of them who survived.

* * *

Later he worked his way through university, and then was hired by a major chemical manufacturer. He was regularly transferred to different locations in Japan, including the cities of Yamaguchi, Osaka and Takamatsu. He got married and had one daughter. After retiring in 1983, he returned to his hometown.

One spring day, some schoolchildren-fifth- or sixth-graders-were standing in front of the monument, and said they were on a field trip. He said to them, "A long time ago there was a big town here." The children expressed surprise, saying "Wow!" Mr. Yamasaki went on, pointing out to them where his house used to be, telling them of how he used to swim in the river.... The children listened to Mr. Yamasaki, spellbound.

His experience that day motivated him to testify as an atomic bomb victim at events held in Peace Memorial Park and other places. "Talking about those who've died lets me remember them; it is my memorial service. I hope my testimony will serve the cause of peace." His notebook records the number of people he has spoken to about his experiences, already exceeding seventy thousand. This month he is scheduled to talk to twenty-four organizations as well.

* Originally published in Japanese in the series "聞きたかったこと [So tell me… about Hiroshima]," The Asahi Shimbun (Hiroshima morning edition), May 28, 2008.