HIROSHIMA, Japan – Keijiro Matsushima was in eighth grade, sitting at his school desk next to a window facing the sea. He recalled looking out at the sky the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, drawn to the sound of American B-29 bombers flying over his island.
Much of the Japanese population was starving. “They were so beautiful and I was so hungry that they looked like silver pancakes to me,” he said of the bombers overhead.
Matsushima figured it was a routine reconnaissance mission and turned back to his books.
Second later, he was hit by the blast. He felt the shockwave, then the wave of heat. He was forced to close his eyes when hit by a surge of blinding, orange light.
“The whole world turned into a sunset world,” he said. He covered his ears and jumped under his desk. Though his school was destroyed, a standing stairwell protected his desk.
Today, the 84-year-old retired schoolteacher is one of the storied hibakusha, the Japanese word for “explosion-affected person,” or survivors of the atomic bombs dropped by the B-29 bombers 68 years ago this week. Their average age is 78 and they have spent decades enduring discrimination and prejudice on top of their heartache
Matsushima was addressing two dozen international scholars and policymakers at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, including a delegation from Stanford University collaborating with the city in its efforts to become an international symbol of peace.
“Seeing the Hiroshima museum and meeting with a hibakusha was a moving reminder of the importance of moving as far and as fast as we safely can toward a world without nuclear weapons,” said Scott Sagan, a Stanford political science professor and a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and its umbrella organization, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Matsushima sat in a classroom in the basement of the museum, seated before a map that laid out the hypocenter of the explosion. He was stoic in his narrative about events that day and often referred to himself as a “lucky boy.”
“It was a very bad war,” he said. “We didn’t know that at the time, and it continued on, a very long war. It just got worse and worse.”
Born in Hiroshima in 1929, Matsushima saw the militarization of his native city as he grew up. He remembers hearing optimistic statements about the grand Japanese success at Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, which resulted in the U.S. declaration of war on the Empire of Japan.
The pressure on Japanese civilians mounted as the war prolonged; rationing of food, water and electricity took its toll on morale. By 1944, the U.S. had conquered several strategic Pacific islands, built airbases and began bombing Japanese cities.
As the Manhattan Project progressed, meetings of the Military Targeting Committee in 1945 designated certain Japanese cities as likely targets to test the new atomic device, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Enola Gay dropped the 4-ton atomic bomb on Hiroshima and half the city vanished, along with 70,000 to 80,000 lives, or a third of the populace.
Though Matsushima was in a classroom of 70 middle-school pupils, he remembers absolute silence after the “big noise.” He was relatively lucky; his school was on the outskirts of the blast radius, several kilometers from the hypocenter.
Though lacerated by glass and rubble, his bones were unbroken and he was able to walk. He helped a wounded classmate to a rescue truck – a young boy whom he would later learn had also survived.
“I think I should have tried rescuing others, but I was a 16-year-old, selfish young boy and I just wanted to leave the city as soon as possible,” Matsushima said with regret.
His mother had left Hiroshima a few months earlier to stay with her in-laws in the surrounding hills. Matsushima walked across the burning city, where tens of thousands of people lay wounded and pleading for help, for water, or for their gods. He walked all night until he arrived at his grandparents’ home.
The atomic bombings in Hiroshima and three days later in Nagasaki claimed between 150,000 and 240,000 lives. The bombs – dubbed Little Boy and Fat Man – would leave thousands more suffering from severe burns, radiation sickness and cancer.
Few cities in history are as closely associated with single, punctuating event than Hiroshima is with the bomb. The metropolis of 1.7 million people has been rebuilt in the last 68 years, its homes refurbished and its port revitalized.
Yet for generations, the city has been known as ground zero. Local leaders are trying to reinvent the city’s image as a beacon for global zero – the elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Policymakers of the world, how long will you remain imprisoned by distrust and animosity?” Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui, himself the son of a hibakusha, asked in his annual peace declaration on Tuesday. “Do you honestly believe you can continue to maintain national security by rattling your sabers? Please come to Hiroshima. Encounter the spirit of the hibakusha. Look squarely at the future of the human family without being trapped in the past, and make the decision to shift to a system of security based on trust and dialogue.”
Sagan, one of the nation’s leading scholars on nuclear proliferation and safety, advocates for global nuclear disarmament as a member of the Hiroshima for Global Peace Task Force. He has worked closely for years with Hiroshima Prefecture Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki in an effort to reach global zero.
“Our hope is that by hosting international conferences and research workshops, Hiroshima can turn from being the memorial site of the deadly ground zero to being the catalyst for moving to a world without nuclear weapons,” Sagan said.
In this photo on August 10, 1945, a mother and her son received a boiled rice ball from an emergency relief party. One mile southeast of Ground Zero, Nagasaki, August 10, 1945.
The visit to Hiroshima in late June by the Stanford delegation also included Francesca Giovannini, a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC; Michael May, a CISAC faculty member and director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Edward Blandford, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of New Mexico and a former nuclear fellow at CISAC.
They were attending the conference, Learning from Fukushima, sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, CISAC, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Hiroshima for Global Peace Project.
It brought together American and Japanese nuclear power and nonproliferation specialists as well as nuclear experts from Southeast Asia. They examined the regional implications of nuclear safety and regional security after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
A devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, prompting a nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactive materials from the plant.
Conference delegates listened to Matsushima’s story and met with Mayor Matsui and other city officials to discuss the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Global Nuclear Future Initiative, which Sagan co-chairs with Steven Miller from Harvard. It offers technical and safety advice to countries that are developing nuclear power programs, while examining the regional and global implications.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s most binding economic and political force, has long been proud of Southeast Asia’s status as a nuclear weapons-free zone. Vietnam, however, is changing that dynamic as it has commissioned several reactors from Russia, the first of which is expected to go online in 2020.
Scholars from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia attended a panel to discuss proliferation, security and competition in the region and whether a nuclear-powered Vietnam would change the delicate balance of ASEAN.
Giovannini, who is also the program coordinator of the Global Nuclear Future Initiative, said her first visit to Hiroshima was spellbinding. The contrast between the vibrant, modern city and the heavy sorrow of its history was palpable. She said the narrative by Matsushima brought the 30-member delegation to silence.
“He was able to bring to life his memory, his past, and the history of the bombing through personal details that allowed us to picture vividly that little boy as he moved through what he called a ghost town,” Giovannini said.
She recalled someone asked Matsushima if he harbored enmity toward the United States.
“No,” he replied, and then smiled. “To move forward – one must forgive.”
Reed Jobs is a Stanford senior majoring in history and a CISAC honors student who traveled with the Stanford delegation to Hiroshima. His honors thesis will focus on the historical study of preventive warfare.