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Mr. Hirai says, "I want young people all over the world to know how horrific nuclear weapons are." (Photo courtesy of Naka Ward, Hiroshima)
Recounting his A-bomb Experience in English
Shoso Hirai (male, 83 years old)
Ishiijo, Fuchu-cho, Hiroshima
By Yohei Goto (male)
Family portrait around 1942, the sole remaining picture of his younger brother, Atsuo (bottom left). (Photo courtesy of Shoso Hirai)
On January 11, 2013, in a meeting room of the International Conference Center Hiroshima, a man gave a talk to about 20 American college students about his experience of the A-bomb. When he finished, one after another the students came up to shake his hand. The volunteer speaker was Hiroshima resident Mr. Shoso Hirai.
For many years, he had kept his painful memories to himself. About ten years ago, however, he had an opportunity to change his mind and started speaking out. Since then he has kept on appealing for world peace among various people, non-Japanese included, using English as needed.
That is what I had heard about him, and it prompted me to arrange a meeting.
* * *
In 1945 he was a 16-year-old student at the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial School (present-day Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial High School). He was living with his parents and younger brother, Atsuo, in Misasa Honmachi (present-day Nishi Ward) near Yokogawa Station. His older sister was already married and living elsewhere. His three older brothers were all in the war zones in China.
On the morning of August 6 he was to visit a friend of his who lived in Nagatsuka (present-day Asaminami Ward). The moment he touched the door of his friend's house to open it, there was a loud "Boom!" After a while he came to his senses. He found the whole area covered with dirt, and his friend's house half destroyed. It was four kilometers [2.5 miles] away from the hypocenter. He thought they must have bombed the nearby primary school. Luckily he was not directly exposed to the bomb's hot rays, because he had been in the shade of the house. When he turned his gaze southward, he saw a huge cloud, shaped like a mushroom, spreading across the sky. Thinking "that's where our house is!" he headed back in a panic.
He went as far back as the Misasa Bridge, on the river that was then called the Ota River, but found it impossible to make his way any farther. The area was congested with so many people fleeing that he couldn't make it to the city center. After a time he ran into his mother, Yayano, and they fell into each other's arms. According to Hirai, "It was not something normally done at all at that time, in private much less in public. The circumstances made us do it quite naturally, though." His mother's arms had been cut by splinters of window glass when the house fell on her.
At night they slept under the eaves of a farmer's house in Furuichi. The following day, the 7th, they went back to where they lived in Misasa Honmachi. The area where their house had stood was reduced to ashes with nothing remaining at all.
* * *
They knew that, at the time the bomb fell, his 50-year-old father, Mitsugi, would have been in the offices of a transportation company, which was quite near the hypocenter. They reached the incinerated building and found only the bones of those who had been working there. Recollecting the scene, he said, "One of the skulls caught my mother's eye and she called out to it, 'Otosan,' just like she used to call my father. Since I was still just a boy, I thought how amazing a married couple was. In other words, I admired this intuition of hers that could tell her husband's skull from all the others."
Atsuo, his 13-year-old younger brother, was said to have been heading to Dobashi-cho (present-day Naka Ward), which was close to the hypocenter. He and his National Elementary School classmates were supposed to be helping demolish buildings to limit fire damage. They never found his body.
Mr. Hirai placed a photograph on the desk. Taken during the war, it showed his whole family, his parents, Atsuo and himself. He said, "I have only this photograph left to prove that my younger brother once lived in this world. This is a precious memento."
Twenty-three years later his mother died of thyroid cancer at age 68. "I believe she would have lived longer if she had not been exposed to the A-bomb," he said.
Recalling his life after the war ended, he said that he landed a job with Fukuya department store after graduating from Yamaguchi Technical College of Economics (now the Department of Economics at Yamaguchi University). He worked behind the counter as a sales clerk, did office work, and over the years looked after large institutional customer sales. Looking back, he recalled, "Anything sold well. Since there was no such thing as a supermarket then, department stores were in their heyday. Also, in those days Fukuya dominated in Hiroshima. So I was always very busy." He remained a corporate warrior, never talking about his A-bomb experiences, right up to retirement.
He now lives with his eldest daughter. His wife, Shizuko, whom he married at 27, passed away nine years ago. When he turned 70, he began studying English. "I hoped to keep myself from going senile!" This decision led him to an English teacher who suggested that he talk to people about his A-bomb experiences. He told him, "You should talk as an A-bomb survivor to the many people who visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park from abroad. The more you speak, the better your English will become."
* * *
Some years later, when he began telling his story in English at the Motoyasu Bridge on August 6, people from overseas recognized him as an A-bomb survivor. They came over to listen and surrounded him, making circles two and three people deep. When he finished, many of them asked to shake his hand or hug him.
In 2011, he went on the NGO ship Peace Boat, which aims to enhance world peace through international exchanges among people. He has visited various countries and spoken of the horrors of the bomb. Still now, if asked, he speaks in front of young people who visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park from abroad, as well as from other parts of Japan.
"Sometimes I don't feel so well, but I am delighted to go and talk when I am fit enough. I am happy if there are young people willing to listen intently to my old stories, and hope it will help them appreciate the importance of world peace."
* 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), January 23, 2013.