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Chiyoko Kuwabara showing letters she received from children who had heard her tell of her bombing experience (Minami Ward, Hiroshima)
Continuing to Tell Her Story and Nurture Lasting Exchanges
Chiyoko Kuwabara (female 83 years old)
Minami Ward, Hiroshima
By Takashi Ohkuma (male)
A-bomb survivor Chiyoko Kuwabara (83), living in Hiroshima's Minami Ward, has long been telling children about the importance of peace. On August 6 this year, the day the atomic bomb was dropped, she was invited to Hiroshima FM radio show Kujiraji [9 p.m. radio] to tell of her experience that day. Despite what must have been a harrowing personal experience, she spoke so gently that it touched my heart. I went to meet with her and listen to her story.
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The youngest of three children, Chiyoko lived with her parents and siblings in Ujinamiyuki (present-day Minami Ward). In 1945, she was in her second year of higher elementary school at Hiroshima Third National Elementary School (present-day Midorimachi Junior High School). At that time, the Army Marine Headquarters (commonly called the "Akatsuki Corps"), was stationed in her school building, and the students were mobilized to work for the army. It was Chiyoko's job to pack Homare brand cigarettes into bags, which were sent to soldiers at the front lines.
On August 6, students were helping clean up the site of a building in Zakoba-cho (present-day Kokutajimachi) that had been demolished to create a fire-free zone in the event of bombing raids. Chiyoko had been suffering from diarrhea and told her mother she didn't want to go, but her mother told her not to give in to a few stomach pains. So, reluctantly she went to work, walking from Ujina and arriving about 8 a.m. While Chiyoko was resting under a large camphor tree because of her stomach pains, she heard someone say, "There's a plane overhead!"
Though she was 800 meters [about half a mile] from the hypocenter, she didn't see the flash and was thrown unconscious into a large hole, where she was covered with debris. After regaining consciousness, she struggled desperately out of the hole. Three friends appeared out of the gloomy darkness: "Chiyoko, you're alive! But what a terrible injury!" That's when she first realized that the skin on her head and forehead was burned and had fallen away, sticking to her face. Her hands were also burned and their skin was left hanging.
Even though it was still morning, it was so dark that they couldn't see a thing. After a while, they could make out a sliver of light coming from the direction of the Takanobashi streetcar station, and started walking toward it. Once she was able to see again, Chiyoko saw people walking, with their skin hanging down, their faces swollen, and their bodies burned. Old people had been put on stretchers and then left behind, and a soldier was lying on the ground, still holding his horse's reins.
"Let's head back to Ujina," she said to her friends, and they walked along the river, crossing the leaning Minami Ohashi Bridge. One of Chiyoko's friends, who had been badly burned, wanted to drink some water. Chiyoko filled a cover from a soldier's mess kit she found with water from a broken water pipe, and, using her fingers to open her friend's mouth, gave her some water. Suddenly, a soldier ran over to them, horrified, and knocked the water out of her hands, shouting, "You'll die if you drink this water! I'll take her to the Red Cross Hospital, and you tell her family!"
And so her journey through pictures of hell continued.
A woman from a building that had collapsed pleaded with her, "My child is buried under the rubble! Please help me!" But there was nothing she and her friends could do, and they walked on. When they were on the Miyukibashi Bridge, a woman grabbed her ankle, begging her, "Get me out of here and take me to Ujina Port!" But it was all she could do to escape herself, and told the woman, "There's nothing I can do for you! Get one of the soldiers to help you!" She had to pry the woman's clutching hand away, one finger at a time.
From the river they heard people shouting, "Mother, help me!" "Father, help me!" But she and her friends felt emotionally numb and couldn't even feel pity for them.
All Chiyoko could think about was getting home; which she finally did around 7 p.m. The bomb blast had caused her house to lean and had blown off the roof tiles. She found a bucket filled with water, and since she was so thirsty, she thought to herself, "Well, if I die from drinking this, then so be it." Unable to resist, she drank many times, and also threw up many times.
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By September, her hair started falling out whenever she combed it. Spots appeared on her body, and her gums bled when she brushed her teeth. She also developed a high fever and was hospitalized for three months at the Ujina Branch of the Hiroshima First Military Hospital (present-day automaker Mazda's Ujina Plant). The nurses were busy day and night without rest, doing their best to care for the sufferers, but one after another the bodies of those who had died kept piling up in the morgue.
In 1950, when she was 18, Chiyoko started working for the Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corporation. In 1965, she married her husband, Tomomi (now 80), and was blessed with two daughters. Since she and her husband were both working, the girls were cared for at an after-school childcare center. Whenever she went to the center to pick her daughters up, she would look into the innocent eyes of the children there and think, "These children's eyes must never be filled with sorrow. We must find ways to prevent war." And so, with her husband's support, about 40 years ago, she began telling children her experience of war. Over the years, she has carefully kept the letters she's received from children who heard her story, resulting in long-lasting exchanges being born.
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About 20 years ago, on a trip to Miyajima Island to share her experiences with students of Nagoya University Affiliated Lower Secondary School, one of the male students accompanied her all the way to the ferry pier to see her off. Soon after, they began corresponding. Occasionally she would send him momiji manju (a local maple leaf-shaped pastry from Hiroshima/Miyajima), and after he became an adult (and doctor), whenever he visited Hiroshima they would eat okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancakes) together.
Over time she had come to think of him as a son. So she thought it strange when his usual New Year's card didn't arrive last year (2014), only to hear from his family that he had died the year before. So as not to worry her husband, she cried alone in the bathroom, saying how she had felt an intolerable sense of loss, "like a gaping hole had opened in my heart." But she added, "I have my memories, so maybe I'm happier than most."
In 1991 she wrote a poem that ended by saying: "I want to be a teller of stories / To devote my remaining years as a witness." And her life's intention is to continue living just this way.
* Originally published in Japanese in the series "聞きたかったこと... 広島〜被爆から７０年〜 [So tell me... about Hiroshima: 70 years after the A-bomb]," The Asahi Shimbun (Hiroshima morning edition), August 12, 2015.