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Mrs. Setsuko Thurlow (left) with artist Mr. Karipbek Kuyukov, a second-generation victim of radiation from nuclear tests in Kazakhstan.
(Vienna, December 8, 2014)
Determined to Keep Telling Her Life Story
Setsuko Thurlow (female, 83 years old)
By Takashi Ohkuma (male)
Mrs. Setsuko Thurlow, reciting a poem about the A-bomb on "Hiroshima Day."
(Toronto, Canada, 2007)
Setsuko Thurlow (maiden name: Nakamura) (83), originally from Hiroshima and now living in Canada, has over the years been giving testimonies in English of her experience of being exposed to the A-bomb. She has given her testimonies to a worldwide audience, including an international conference in Vienna in December 2014. At times she was subjected to callous criticism, but her decision to keep sharing her experience remains unwavering. I asked her what led to her commitment.
Mrs. Thurlow was born in Hiroshima's Kojin-machi (present-day Minami Ward) in 1932, the youngest of seven siblings. Since her brothers and sisters were much older and eventually left home, she became the only one living with her parents. In 1944, she was enrolled at Hiroshima Jogakuin High School, and remembers the miserable meals at school and at home then. Because rationed food was so limited then, they only had thin rice gruel, containing just a few rice grains to eat.
On August 6, 1945, Mrs. Thurlow was working as a member of the Student Mobilization Program at the Second General Army Headquarters (present-day Higashi Ward), which was located approximately 1.8 kilometers [1.1 miles] from the hypocenter. She and about thirty classmates were assigned to help decipher coded messages while listening to English-language radio. Looking back, she says, "You can see how hopeless the war situation was, considering that such an important task was left to schoolgirls."
At 8 a.m. they were assembled on the second floor of a building where the man in charge had just started giving an address. Moments after he said, "And now for His Majesty the Emperor . . .," she saw a bluish-white flash. She then lost consciousness and has no recollection of the blast or any sound. By the time she came to, the building had collapsed, and she thought, "I am dying," but was neither upset nor afraid, and felt ready to accept her destiny calmly.
She heard her classmates' faint cries for help, "Mother, help me!" "God, help me!" and then she heard a man's loud voice, "Keep moving in the direction of the light!" She got out of the building just before it burst into flames.
Although it was morning, it was as dark as dusk. She saw people walking from downtown Hiroshima; some had strips of skin hanging from their fingertips, exposing bone, and some had eyeballs or internal organs hanging from their bodies. They all tried to escape to the East Drill Ground (present-day Higashi Ward), taking care not to step on the bodies on the ground. There were thousands of dead bodies lying silently, their burned flesh giving off a foul stench.
Mrs. Thurlow's father was safe in Miyajima, and her mother, who had stayed at home, had also narrowly escaped disaster. Her sister and nephew were horribly burned and their bodies were swollen. But they both survived for several days, and her nephew begged her for "bubu (water)." However, she didn't give him any because she had been told that they would die if they drank any water. She now says regretfully, "I wish I had given him a bucketful of water!"
Soldiers burned the bodies without care or any regard for human dignity. As they were carrying out this task, she heard them say, "The belly isn't burned yet" or "The brains aren't quite burned". She didn't shed any tears, and she felt emotionally numb.
In mid-September, while her family was staying at a relative's house in Fuchu-cho, the Makurazaki Typhoon hit Hiroshima. Standing in dirty water up to her knees, she cried out for the first time after the A-bomb, "I'm so miserable!" Her father scolded her, saying, "But you're alive! What else do you want?" She was jolted by his words, which made her realize that she was alive, and since then she has remained positive.
School started again in October. Since the schoolhouse had burned down, they were studying in a temporary schoolhouse, which didn't have any windows, in Ushita. When it rained, the noise drowned out the teachers' voices. Although the war had ended, some classmates kept wearing their air-raid hoods to cover their heads to conceal their lost hair. Other classmates, who looked like they should have survived, died later from the effects of radiation. Every morning, Mrs. Thurlow would examine her body for purple spots.
* * *
After graduating from the English literature department of Hiroshima Jogakuin University in 1954, she received a scholarship to study in the United States. This was the year a Japanese tuna fishing boat was contaminated with radiation following the U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, and the antinuclear movement was gaining momentum in Japan.
When a local reporter interviewed her, she answered honestly, "What the United States did was inhumane." After her interview, the college received many anonymous letters, saying things like, "Aren't you studying on an American scholarship? Go back to Japan!" "Remember Pearl Harbor!" This scared her and she struggled to express her opinion openly, feeling like a lone voice speaking out as an A-bomb survivor in the United States. However, she was strong in her belief, saying, "This is the most important thing in my life," and decided to keep on speaking out.
There was another incident that reinforced her decision. In 1974, she participated in the World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima, where she met many survivors. "I met Professor Ichiro Moritaki and Ms. Sadako Kurihara and become determined to keep telling the story of Hiroshima like they did." Previously, she had voiced her opinion in the United States and Canada, but actively sought to use every opportunity to speak out.
In 1975, to mark the 30th anniversary of the A-bomb, she organized a photographic exhibition in Toronto about the A-bombing, with photo panels sent from Hiroshima. That year on August 6, she started "Hiroshima Day," in which people gather to pray for peace, and it continues to this day. In 1984, she helped establish the Peace Garden in front of Toronto City Hall to commemorate Toronto's 150th anniversary, working hard to inherit an ember from the "Flame of Peace" in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park and water from the rivers of Nagasaki.
In 2007, her contribution to the peace movement was acknowledged when she was awarded membership in the Order of Canada, the highest honor awarded to citizens of Canada by their government.
* * *
Mrs. Thurlow says, "I am happy to have lived seventy years after being exposed to the A-bomb."
In December last year, an international conference was held in Vienna. Mrs. Thurlow cried with joy when she heard the chairman make a strong statement in his summary about the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, and a statement that a majority of the participating countries had called for legal restrictions of nuclear weapons.
It is only in recent years that the "inhumanity of nuclear weapons" has been widely discussed by various governments. Mrs. Thurlow says, "I always thought it was strange that after the start of the Korean War and the Cold War, the only discussion around nuclear matters was strategic." Now she feels things have changed: "This may be an uncomfortable period for nuclear-weapon states, but it surely is an exciting time." However, she feels, "Japan still remains silent."
The Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which is held every five years, will be held this year . More than a thousand NGOs and other groups from Japan will travel to the United States to participate in and collect signatures for a nuclear weapons-free world petition. "I hope these voices will reach Tokyo, and that the Japanese government becomes aware of their work and hears their message. It is now time for these voices to be much louder."
* 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 7, 2015.