An American's key role as Hiroshima commemorates atomic bombing (+video)
Steven Leeper oversees Hiroshima's commemoration of the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of the atomic bomb. The US presence at the memorial ceremony has grown, with even President Truman's grandson in attendance this year.
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Upon Leeper’s appointment in 2007, Akiba told reporters that the city needed the American’s energetic contributions to global peace, his English skills and international agility, and his capacity to reach beyond borders – especially as survivor ranks had diminished (their average age is now 78).Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Remembering Hiroshima
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Leeper was critical to Akiba’s success at the UN, where the mayor was able to develop alliances with international partners and nongovernmental organizations.
"Steven speaks Japanese and has been doing peace activism for a long time,” Katsutoshi Kajikawa of the Hiroshima branch of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs said in 2007. “[That’s why] there is no criticism against him, just because he is an American."
“People in Hiroshima experienced the end of the world,” Leeper says. “That’s something that completely transcends nation-states; they don’t even matter at that level. [Hiroshima residents] were very appreciative when I was appointed because I can help them get the word out, and that’s what they really want.”
Hating nuclear weapons, not Americans
Just as the residents of Fukushima, site of the ongoing nuclear power plant crisis, distinguish themselves from the rest of Japan, and New Yorkers often speak of 9/11 with propriety, the population of Hiroshima has logged their experience of the A-bomb into a personal ledger. “We hurt the way no other Japanese understand,” young female Hiroshima student, Akiko Inoue, explains. “We lost family.”
Years of the neglect and even dismissal of survivors by the national government in Tokyo have long deepened the chasm.
“There were some who wrote letters opposing my appointment, but they were all from Tokyo or Osaka,” Leeper says. “People who can only identify with country. And from their point of view, I am a member of the country that bombed Hiroshima and defeated Japan, so I should be disliked in some way.
“But no one here in Hiroshima hates Americans. What they hate is war and nuclear weapons. Even a lot of Japanese conservatives support us, because they know Hiroshima’s role is to prevent the end of the world.”
Deeply familiar with Japan
It helps that Leeper is fluent not only in the language, but also in the culture and sensitivities of Japan. To hear him tell it, his life has been a series of accidents.
He was born in Illinois and spent the first five years of his life in Japan. His father, Dean Leeper, worked for the Tokyo YMCA shortly after the occupation. Later, after Father Dean was ordained at Yale Divinity School, Steven returned to Japan as a 7-year-old in 1954 for three weeks, during which time his father died in a typhoon aboard the Toya Maru, a ship ferrying passengers from Japan’s main island, Honshu, to its northern territory, Hokkaido.
The stories about the senior Leeper aiding Japanese passengers amid the typhoon, performing magic tricks to lift spirits, and outfitting women and children with life jackets before he perished have become legendary in certain circles, relayed in Japanese newspapers and books, most notably Ayako Miura’s debut novel, Hyoten ("Freezing Point").