Hundreds gathered in Mead Memorial Chapel on Monday, May 2 to attend “Responsibility, Reconciliation and the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs.” The event’s primary participants were Shigeko Sasamori, an 84 year-old survivor of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing, and Clifton Daniel, grandson of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Their discussion was moderated by Stephen Snyder, Dean of Language Schools and Professor of Japanese Studies.
“Tonight’s event is important for learning and knowing about responsibility, and for engaging in a dialogue that is integral to reconciliation,” said Tamar Mayer, director of the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, who gave opening remarks. “For learning lessons from the past, and for acknowledging that war has devastating impacts on victims, perpetrators, their children, their grandchildren and on the globe as a whole.”
Mayer also read a statement from President of the College Laurie L. Patton, who could not attend. “These two people are descendants of the best and the worst policies and mindsets of the twentieth century,” Patton’s statement read in part. “They’re taking the legacy of their ancestors and transforming them into a positive force for good. And they’re doing so through conversation, perhaps the most powerful tool that we have.”
The discussion then began with a speech by Sasamori, in which she recalled her own experience of the bombing and its aftermath.
“That day, all the students at my school had to help in the city,” she said. “Just starting to clean up the gutters, I heard an airplane and I looked at the sky — Hiroshima that day was beautiful blue sky, with no clouds. A silver airplane flew by, and it looked so beautiful. So I told my girlfriend, ‘Look at the sky!’ I pointed, and at the same time, I saw the airplane drop something white. Later, I found out that was a parachute, so the bomb don’t explode closer to the airplane.”
“When I saw the white thing drop, it pushed me down. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, probably a long time. When I became conscious, I looked around — pitch black, I couldn’t see anything,” she said. After a fog lifted, Sasamori said, she began to notice other victims.
“Everyone is different, everybody’s completely changed. All over the hair, ashes, and burns, clothes hanging, bleeding, red all over and walking very slowly,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t feel anything.”
Eventually, Sasamori lost consciousness again, and was taken to a school auditorium. “I stayed in the auditorium five days, four nights,” she said. “I keep saying, ‘Please give me water, please tell my parents my name, address.’ It was very hard for me to say. I said to myself, ‘One more time, somebody pay attention.’ Suddenly, a man heard.”
“Then, my parents came, holding candles, saying, ‘Shigeko, Shigeko,’ looking at people on the floor, like a fish market. Then finally, my mother heard, ‘Here I am!’ … My mother told me many years later … she said my face was so swollen, it looked like a burned toast. Couldn’t see where’s the nose, where’s the eyes, where’s the mouth?”
“Several months after, I came out and looked at myself…When I saw myself in a little broken mirror, I couldn’t believe it … that wasn’t a human face, it was like a big monster.”
Sasamori ultimately came to the United States in the 1950s to receive reconstructive plastic surgery. Here, she gave birth to a son, Norman Cousins Sasamori, who also attended the event.
“When he was born, I was so happy,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Thank you for coming to me on this Earth … I won’t let you go to war. Kill me first.’”
Sasamori has since become increasingly involved with movements for peace
peace and against nuclear weapons. “Thank God,” she said, “nowadays much more people are anti-nuclear, but not enough! Everyone has to be together to make a peaceful world…People made it, people can undo it.”
Clifton Daniel spoke next, describing his own upbringing during the Cold War, in which nuclear weapons were “a fact of life.”
“My grandfather never spoke to me about his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in 1945,” he said. “So I learned about them from my history books. And the history books, to this day, do not give you a whole lot of information about Hiroshima or Nagasaki. There will be a page or two…and facts and figures and dates, but nothing really about what happened to Shigeko, and what happened to the other citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Above all, Daniel said, the Japanese survivors he has met simply seek an audience for their stories.
“Shigeko, and other survivors whom I met, came to me only with open minds and open hearts. No one came to me in recrimination…none of them made me responsible. They just wanted me to listen, to understand what it was like to live through a nuclear explosion, so that hopefully, we won’t do this to each other again.”
“What Shigeko and the other survivors opened up for me was a much broader, much deeper, much more open-minded way of thinking,” he said. “Not only about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about human relations, about politics, about history.
“It’s almost impossible—trying to see all sides at once. The truth is always somewhere in the middle, and it shifts and moves. So it’s been an eye-opener for me, learning completely the opposite from what I’d been taught as a child. But it’s brought me to a greater understanding.”
After remarks from Norman Cousins Sasamori and Clifton’s son Wesley Daniel, the panelists took questions from audience members.
One student asked the panelists about the extent to which individuals are obligated to correct the mistakes of their ancestors.
“I feel a sense of responsibility, not guilt,” Daniel said. “And everyone should feel a sense of responsibility for this, regardless of whether you’re related to Harry Truman or not…We should have to do what we think we can, and it starts with responsibility and caring about it.”
After the event, students agreed that the event was a valuable one.
Sedge Lucas ’19 grew up in Japan and had heard similar stories from survivors. Still, he said, “It might be a more important story to tell in this context, if only because, as of now, Japan seems to be a very non-violent society that doesn’t seem to be approaching anything along the lines of World War II. Whereas in the United States, especially given what’s happening in the presidential race, it seems like messages like these are particularly important.”
Sydney Shuster ’18.5 called for a continued dialogue. “I think it would be really interesting to have a talk about policy, moving forward—things that we can actually do to change things in the future,” she said. “I don’t think we touched on a lot of that tonight, but it got a lot of gears turning. They were both really amazing speakers, and it was interesting to see two generations up there.”
The event’s closing remarks, given by Snyder, seemed to summarize the feelings of many in attendance.
“Someone asked earlier in the evening how we change the narrative,” Snyder said. “One way, certainly, is to continue narrating. Listening to Sasamori-San and Clifton Daniel tell us these stories this evening certainly has changed me. I think that for all of our narratives, how we keep them alive is simply a matter of continuing to talk, and continuing to tell these stories.”