Survivors' tales of ordeal live on

War survivor Hiromi Hasai with Ms Ritsuko Kinoshita, who has spent years by his side as he addressed visitors to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum.
War survivor Hiromi Hasai with Ms Ritsuko Kinoshita, who has spent years by his side as he addressed visitors to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

HIROSHIMA • Mr Hiromi Hasai was being trained to make machine gun bullets when the flash from the atomic bomb that destroyed his city lit up the morning sky. Just 14, he had been pulled from school a week before to help Japan's failing war effort.

Mr Hasai, now 84, has often talked publicly of his experiences that day, when the first of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war ultimately killed more than 100,000 people. The victims included hundreds of his classmates, who were still at their school near the blast's epicentre.

Yet, the things that Mr Hasai saw and felt that day are not recounted by him alone. The person who knows his story best, after Mr Hasai himself, is Ms Ritsuko Kinoshita, a woman 25 years his junior who is serving as his "denshosha" - the designated transmitter of his memories. It is part of an unusual and highly personal project to preserve and pass on the experiences of atomic bombing survivors, whose numbers are dwindling rapidly.

Mr Hasai, a retired university physics researcher with a quick and infectious laugh, is still healthy, as are many of the other survivors.


But the objective for Ms Kinoshita and roughly 50 other volunteer denshosha is to keep telling the stories they have inherited once the witnesses become too frail to do so, to keep alive memories of a traumatic event that has anchored the pacifist sentiment that has pervaded the country ever since.

The number of officially recognised survivors of the nuclear attacks fell by about 6,000 last year, and is now below 200,000. Their average age is over 80.

"Even in Hiroshima, memories are fading," said Mr Hidemichi Kawanishi, a history professor at Hiroshima University. There has been much hand-wringing, he said, over a survey released this week by NHK, the national public broadcaster, showing that 30 per cent of the city's residents could not name the date the bomb was dropped. Nationwide, 70 per cent could not cite the date. It is a trend that many survivors and their denshosha would like to reverse, or at least slow down. Ms Kinoshita has spent years by Mr Hasai's side as he addressed groups of students, educators and visitors to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum.

She can describe how he and his young fellow workers did what they could for the "ghost people" who poured from the city in the hours after the bombing, many with burns so horrific that their flesh fell away when they were touched.

"I'm trying to recount his life and his way of thinking as purely as possible," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'Survivors' tales of ordeal live on'. Print Edition | Subscribe