Hiroshima's Legacy: the Story Of One Japanese Family

Motoko Sakama lives in Tokyo. Her father was the mayor of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the day an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on that city. This account of her family's experience was published in the August 1967 edition of Fujin no Tomo, a well-respected monthly magazine aimed at women, and appears here for the first time in English. LOOKING BACK AT HIROSHIMA

AUGUST in Japan is the season of agitation against atomic and hydrogen bombs. Reviving their memories of that time many years ago, people express their hatred for war and appeal for peace. These are the wishes of earnest Japanese, but I have been unable to join in this fervor until now.

I have devoted many quiet, private moments to thoughts of the happy days with my family before the World War II and to the ordeal I suffered because of it, without wanting to share those thoughts. But I have come to think that if the peace expiated by the deaths of my beloved family members were endangered, I would be extremely sorry. My simple prayer for continued peace has brought me the courage to write about my experience. I will be happy if my writing lets readers know the callousness of war.

At the time, my father was mayor of Hiroshima. Until that day, Aug. 6, 1945, I had my parents and four younger brothers and sisters. I was married and had a two-year-old daughter. It was wartime, but I was living a peaceful life in Ashiya (a city in central Japan).

My father, Senkichi Awaya, converted to Christianity when he was young and was influenced by Kanzo Uchimura (a 19th-century Christian scholar whose work combined patriotism with a pacifist, anti-authoritarian independence).

After graduation from university, my father became an official of the national government. Two years before the end of the war, he was appointed mayor of Hiroshima and left Tokyo to fulfill his responsibilities in that military town.

When he took office, he was alone at first, having left his family in the capital. But as the war intensified, he called my mother and brother to live with him in Hiroshima. One of my two sisters was a post-graduate high school student mobilized in Niigata (in northern Japan). Another brother and sister, elementary school pupils, were evacuated to Kofu (near Tokyo) and Matsumoto (in central Japan), respectively.

With the uncertain hope that we would live together again someday, we tried to encourage one another and endured the situation for the sake of our country. Only my father seemed to have prepared himself for the worst.

''Death may come to us at any time as we live on the border between life and death,'' he wrote in a letter to my sister. ''Let us do our best and live lives expected of every Japanese. If we cannot meet in this world again, let us meet in heaven.'' This letter suggests the tense atmosphere of the time.

My husband, an official of the Hyogo prefectural government, was hospitalized in late July 1945 with what was diagnosed as typhoid fever. Considering how difficult it was for me to take care of my husband and my infant daughter, Ayako, at the same time, my father sent my mother to visit us and offered to keep Ayako temporarily.

Although there were no major air raids in Hiroshima at that time, I was hesitant about being separated from my daughter. But I finally accepted my parents' kind offer, and my daughter left Kobe's Sannomiya Station with my mother on the morning of Aug. 3.

Ayako was very obedient and cheerful when she got on the train. I never imagined that it would be the last time that I would see her in this world.

Only three days later came the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I was carelessly unaware of the seriousness of the event. I thought that because my father was in an important post, I would have been informed if anything had happened. Two days after the bombing, there were great air raids in Osaka and Kobe that I narrowly escaped, so I felt rather relieved that I had sent my child to a safe place.

I cannot describe how we felt at seeing a report in the Aug. 11 morning newspaper entitled, ''Mayor Awaya of Hiroshima Is Among Victims.''

I lamented the loss of my father and worried that Ayako and other family members had also died. I was desperate to go to Hiroshima, but because of the total confusion in both the transportation and communication lines to the west of Kobe (toward Hiroshima), it was very hard for a woman to go alone. In this situation, the news of the end of the war (on Aug.15) made me feel I had hit bottom.

I soon learned details about Hiroshima and that my mother was alive, although seriously injured. It wasn't until Aug. 16 that I could board a freight train for Hiroshima, leaving my husband at the hospital in a nurse's care.

I recall a sad incident that reflects the social situation at the time. While I was dozing on the train, all of the food and medicine I had brought for my mother was stolen.

I spent the night on the train, and as Hiroshima neared, I was surprised at the strange smell. When I got off the train, I was stunned at the sight of empty fields reduced to ashes.

I couldn't orient myself. I began to walk along a road with no sign posts, using Mt. Hiji and Port Ujina as landmarks. I suppose I walked six miles to reach my mother in Takasu, in the suburbs of Hiroshima, walking through a city of death in the scorching August sunshine. Ten days had passed since the bomb had exploded, but there were still burning smells and violent odors. The maggots and flies breeding all over the city made it clear to me how devastating the attack had been. I wondered if there were any other war ruins as ghastly as Hiroshima.

I managed to reach the house where my mother was being cared for. Immediately I rushed to her and burst into tears in her embrace, forgetting to greet the people of the house. My mother's mouth was cut, and she was worn out, but I was so grateful she was alive.

My mother said to me in repentance, ''I am so sorry for the death of Ayako.'' Looking at her crying in apology, I could never lament for my dead daughter. My mother soon regained her presence of mind and began to talk about the bombing.

Home near epicenter

According to my mother, there was tension on the morning of Aug. 6 in Hiroshima because of air raids that had begun the previous night. During the raids, my father had read the Bible and prayed in a shelter, as was his habit. He had also read ''For a Sleepless Night,'' by Carl Hilty.

My parents were living in a long, narrow house located within 500 meters (about one-third of a mile) of the epicenter. My father, my brother, and my daughter were relaxing after breakfast in the living room, which overlooked a river. They were relieved at the lifting of the air-raid warning (the all-clear had sounded at 8 a.m.). My mother was alone in the kitchen near the entrance.

At 8:15, the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. My mother remembered the flash, but lost consciousness immediately under the collapsed house. Not knowing how she crawled out of the house, she found herself lying in the compound of a shrine nearby. She suddenly thought of her husband and other family members. Although injured, she managed to reach a bridge near her house, but confronted a sea of flames that prevented her from going any farther.

I can imagine how she felt when she was looking at that scene with the realization that her family was inside the flames. Around her a lot of people, many almost naked, were rushing to escape the fire. People were screaming, ''Water, water!'' and dying with their heads dipped in the river. The roads were covered with bodies, people lying down in acute pain, and people overcome by stupor. It was like hell on earth, my mother said.

My mother was later brought to the partly burned Nisseki Hospital by an acquaintance and placed under the care of our relatives. It was so blessed a thing that I greatly thanked them.

Three days later, with the flames waning, a Hiroshima city official went to look for our families. He soon found corpses believed to be those of my father and brother, but not Ayako's.

The official searched again, and tearfully told my mother that he found a small skeleton beside my father's. Some of their bones were carefully put in three boxes. It was a fortunate thing, compared with other bereaved families who could never find the remains of their loved ones. Little Ayako probably died being hugged by my father.

Mother's last gift

I spent three days taking care of my mother, and she recovered enough to sew a pair of the cotton pants that women wore during the war. She thought she would be able to return to Tokyo after resting for a while. Since she said she felt sorry for my husband in the hospital, I decided to return to Kobe. As I was leaving, my mother looked lonely but made me norimaki sushi and saw me off at the entrance of the hospital. It was her last thoughtful gift to me.

I wrote a detailed letter about my mother to one of my two younger sisters who had returned from Niigata to Tokyo and was worried about Hiroshima. At my request, my sister went to Hiroshima on Aug. 30 to take my mother to Tokyo. Although my sister wrote to me that she was worried about my mother's physical condition, I believed that my mother would recover eventually.

My mother was very pleased at my sister's arrival and thanked her for coming. They spent the day in endless conversations. But the following day my mother's condition suddenly began to deteriorate. Three days later, she developed symptoms of what was came to be called atomic bomb disease.

When I rushed to her again, she was almost unconscious. The only thing I could do for her was to prepare herb tea and cool her with ice I obtained several kilometers from the hospital. She died on Sept. 7.

All administrative functions were still paralyzed in Hiroshima, and we had to dispose of my mother's body ourselves. We asked strangers for firewood and, together with my sister and aunts, I borrowed a large cart and transported my mother's body to a nearby field . Long trenches had been dug for the many corpses that were brought in daily. We arranged the firewood inside a hole, gently put my mother's body there, and built a fire.

I wonder how many times we hesitated to do so. ''Is there anything as miserable as this?'' I recall saying in tears to my sister that day. We reserved some of her remains for a proper funeral ceremony.

On Sept. 10, after saying goodbye to those who helped us in Hiroshima, my sister and I left in an autumn rain, taking with us four small boxes of bones.

Totally exhausted, I returned to my husband at the Kobe hospital. I wondered how my husband felt when he saw the remains of his daughter come back to him in a box a month after she went to Hiroshima.

Saying that it was a result of my parents' kind offer, he did not complain, but I felt very sorry for him and full of anguish myself.

About that time, my sister began to feel unwell. I sympathized with her trying to return to the capital alone, and I decided to accompany her to our Tokyo home, which had survived the air raids.

Dedication of a dear sister

The house was empty and quiet when its owner and his family returned as bones. Upon our arrival in Tokyo, my sister went to bed. As she was usually extremely healthy, I expected she would be recovering soon. I therefore left her in the care of my grandmother and returned to Kobe.

Our Kobe house was burned down, and I rented a house in Arima, near Kobe, from a kind acquaintance. I took my husband there from the hospital after he recovered.

After three weeks thinking about what to do next, we received an unexpected telegram telling us that my sister, Yasuko, was ill. I hurried to her and was shocked to see her so weak.

Looking back, I assume that my sister was influenced indirectly by the atomic bombing while she was taking care of my mother.

She was exposed to much radiation for about 10 days in Hiroshima, especially when taking care of things at the house, so near the site of the bombing.

I strongly hoped that with my sister's strength as a young woman she would recover. With our financial situation slightly better than when we were caring for my mother, we hired a nurse and did our best.

But the food supply at the time was worse than during the war. We gave her whatever food we could obtain, but she became increasingly weak.

Yasuko was the brightest and most sensitive of my brothers and sisters. She was liked by many of the friends she made in her school days, from elementary school through a post-senior high school.

Under the strong influence of our father's religious belief and his life, my sister had kept a diary since our father's death, describing her deep sorrow. She had hesitated to rely on her married sister (me) and had determined that without her parents, she should take care of the remaining family.

She had told me that after she recovered, she would go and tell another younger brother and sister at an evacuation site about their parents' deaths in a gentle manner and bring them back to Tokyo.

My sister had prepared funerals for our parents and other victims in my family. With such a determination in her life, she died, barely a young woman. It was the night of Nov. 24.

Toward the end of the year, a funeral for the five victims in my family, including my sister, was held with the help of Toraji Tsukamoto, a Christian respected by my father. The ceremony was pure and wholehearted, with a lot of friends and relatives of my parents and my sister gathering.

Praying and crying, they consoled us. Mr. Tsukamoto's words to encourage us at the time still remain in my ears: ''I have no words of condolence, but please endure quietly until after the storm has gone.''

Peace was restored after Japan was defeated in the war, but the sacrifice forced on us immediately before the end of the war was truly difficult to bear.

Bringing up younger siblings

Life after the war was severe. Since then, I have had a long walk with heavy burdens on my shoulder. My brother and sister - 12 and 10 years old at the time, respectively - have had to depend on me. Until that time, I had never confronted hardships. I was from a middle-class family.

I felt cowardly and weak, but I decided that I shouldn't keep crying but should get stronger and more cheerful to rear my little brother and my sister in an unsentimental manner.

My husband, a national government official, had to move often from one place to another. Although it was for family reasons that I had to care for my brother and sister, I continued to cause trouble for my husband, often leaving him alone in his place of work.

I am truly grateful to my husband for his patient, selfless cooperation and continued encouragement.

In the meantime, I gave birth to a son and a second daughter. My brother and my sister became cheerful as elementary school pupils and grew up despite more lonely, less affluent lives; my sister was educated at Ochanomizu Junior/Senior High schools, and my brother, although he often worried about the meaning of his life, studied at a Tokyo metropolitan high school and then at the University of Tokyo.

After graduation, he became a public servant, just like his father. My sister graduated from International Christian University and got married earlier than my brother.

Later on, my brother met his future wife. On the eve of his wedding, he expressed his heartfelt thanks to my husband and me for rearing him for 18 years. He promised that he would make strong efforts so that he wouldn't disgrace his father's name.

My husband and I were moved to tears, hand in hand; I will never forget my gratitude and deep emotion on that night, which would have blessed my parents.

Now our three families engage in independent, peaceful family lives with five children who have never seen their grandparents, but neither have they experienced any war. (Since the writing of this essay, another birth has brought the total number of children to six.)

Now that I have climbed a steep mountain that I looked up at with great concern in those days, I am happy and uplifted.

It was not because of our ability alone that we have reached the peak. It was probably a greater power and my parents' prayers that supported us. For this, I am filled with deep gratitude.

I sincerely wish that no one has the same experience as mine. I pray that the numerous war dead and atomic-bomb victims, including my loved ones, may be in peace.

* On Aug. 9, the Monitor will report on Mrs. Sakama's visit to Hiroshima for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

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