An American's key role as Hiroshima commemorates atomic bombing

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.

Itsuo Inouye/AP
Paper lanterns float along the Motoyasu River in front of the illuminated Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, western Japan, Aug. 6. On Monday, Hiroshima marks the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing.

At 8:15 a.m. on every Aug. 6 since 1952, a moment of silence descends over the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan, to commemorate the estimated 200,000 victims of the first atomic bomb deployed in a wartime act of aggression.

Among the attendees are family members of the deceased, foreign and domestic dignitaries, and visitors from around the world. The silence is signaled by the solemn ringing of a Peace Bell by a bereaved family member and a local schoolgirl. Like the annual 9/11 memorial services in America, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony in Japan, broadcast live and replayed throughout the day, is almost impossible to avoid: a haunting 24-hour reminder both of past horrors and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.

Since 2009, when President Obama announced that he sought to visit Hiroshima, stories of a more proactive American engagement with one of history's worst nightmares have grown. In 2010, John Roos became the first US ambassador to attend the ceremony, and he was here again this morning (“very moving and powerful,” he tweeted). Also on hand today were Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Harry Truman, who authorized the bomb, and Ari Beser, grandson of Jacob Beser, the only person involved in both atomic bomb deployments, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

They joined an estimated 50,000 visitors from 70 nations for a ceremony and declaration of peace that will be redelivered via live stream this morning at 9:15 EST.

For the past five years, another American seated in the VIP section also has been intimately involved in ensuring that the ceremony goes off without a hitch. Since 2007, Steven Leeper has been chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, responsible for overseeing the annual ceremony, the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and the city’s efforts to communicate its message to the world.

That a citizen of the nation that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima now leads the city’s 100-employee, $18 million peace foundation raises eyebrows.

“Very odd that I as a non-Japanese should be at the very top,” Mr. Leeper admits.  “But I’m not here to tell them how to run things. I’m here to help them rid the world of nuclear weapons.”

First tapped by Hiroshima's former mayor

Leeper was first tapped to join the cause in 2001 by former Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, the best known of the city’s many mayoral advocates of a nuclear weapons ban. Unlike most Japanese politicians, Mr. Akiba is fully bilingual, a graduate of the University of Tokyo and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.  As president of the international organization, Mayors for Peace, he traveled the globe to convey Hiroshima’s plea, leading a delegation of mayors from 61 nations at the United Nations to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005.

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).

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").

“Having a father who lived and died heroically in Japan has helped me enormously,” says Leeper now.  “His legacy gave me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

At 17, Leeper returned to Japan and met his future wife, Elizabeth, another American child of missionaries who was fluent in the language and culture.

Leeper worked for the Japanese automobile industry in the bubble-era 1980s as a consultant, helping mega-companies like Toyota and Nissan erect American operations. In his 40s, he encountered the work of Hiroshima survivor Moritaki Ichiro on the sheer madness of nuclear weaponry, and he became particularly moved by stories of children who fled the flames of the bomb while their parents died in the city behind them. 

Leeper now has a riverside house in Atlanta, where his wife and in-laws live. But when he was called up by Akiba in 2001, he had an epiphany. “The auto industry is always concerned with environmental problems. What I realized when Akiba-san asked me to get involved, was that all the environmental worries about climate, resources, population – they mean nothing if we are still at war with one another, and nothing at all if we can destroy one another with these insane weapons.”

Progress has been limited at best. Hostile rhetoric between Iran and Israel has deepened over concerns about the intent of Iran's nuclear program; Pakistan and India thrust and parry; and North Korea remains a nuclear question mark in Asia.  

A hopeful quest

But Leeper is hopeful. He cites the introduction of a concept – "the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons" – consecrated in Switzerland earlier this year, as a slap in the face to the hoary notion of "deterrence" (i.e., having more nukes than your neighbor will keep the peace), and a meager step toward global disarmament.

“Perversely, the fact that these weapons are more powerful and more accessible than ever has made the biggest players [the United States and Russia] realize that they need to be destroyed. The big powers don’t want to see the world end, but smaller players, like Al Qaeda, just might.”

The paradox of an American leading Hiroshima’s devotion to peace is irrelevant to Leeper, who sees the next five years as “a nuclear emergency,” critical to the survival of the human race.

“Visitors from all over the world are surprised by an American leading the peace mission in Hiroshima,” he says. “But it’s not irony. It’s me being an embodiment of the fact that Hiroshima is not pursuing the road of retribution, but the path of reconciliation. I am that reality. That's what Mayor Akiba said, and that’s the reason he put me here.”

For more on Stephen Leeper and Hiroshima, see this recent documentary film

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