The Powerful and Fading Message of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s Global Survivors: The Case for a Group Nobel Peace Prize


By Akio Matsumura

Update: This article is available in Japanese

The survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki–a group that represents not just Japan but many nations–carry memories invaluable to bridging the gap between violence and peace.  Their stories as the sole witnesses and survivors of nuclear weapons used as an act of war are the most powerful deterrent to future nuclear war.  There is not much time to carry their message forward; the bombings were many decades ago. The group and its message are fading.

Historically, the Nobel Peace Prize has only been awarded to an institution or an individual, precluding groups from winning the Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Committee should adjust its policies and bring renewed attention to the atrocities of nuclear weapons by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s global survivors.     

The Grave Issue of Nuclear Security

You wouldn’t have to be a betting man to say that nuclear security has been synonymous with international security for the past seven decades.  Today, other pressing concerns have crowded the top of the agenda, but nuclear security holds its weight among them.  The US Congress just passed the New START agreement to reduce nuclear stockpiles.  The international community is concerned with developments of programs and testing in several countries, including Iran and North Korea.  And the threat of proliferation among terrorists, especially in Pakistan, has the United States and other governments in panic.  Much of the world’s violent conflict directly relates to the perception of nuclear instability in South Asia and the Middle East.  While there are many safeguards in place to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation or attack, such an important issue deserves to be viewed from several perspectives.

I am Japanese, and the two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—on August 6 and 9, 1945—have played a special role in my life.  I have spent much time investigating the horrific disaster, from watching documentary films of survivor stories and political movements against the atomic bomb to talking with survivors, politicians, and religious figures.

Piecing the Puzzle Together

Such a polarizing global event has many facets, and to gain a full perspective one must be able to see them all.  Because I worked at the UN and other international organizations for three decades, I was able to hear another side—the perspectives of those who suffered Japanese military aggression in China, Korea, the Philippines, and Dutch-Indonesians.

Just as important a perspective came from the Americans who believe that dropping the atom bombs, while tragic, ended the war early and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

To be sure, the American use of the atom bomb in 1945 against the Japanese was terrible. Tens of thousands died instantly upon explosion, and many more died from radiation in the ensuing years.  The cities were razed.  But the memory has taken an enormous toll on the survivors, both the victims and the assailants.  How does one rebuild a country and life after such devastation?

What about those who were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in early August 1945 and managed to survive the explosions? Surely those who had lived through such carnage were unforgiving and resentful.  Understandably, many are.   But I was convinced that there was a different story.  I asked Mr. Tadayuki Takeda, a Hiroshima native and a friend from university, to help me find a new story: was there a victim who could transform that violent act into a promotion of peace?

A Fresh Perspective

In December 2006 I flew to Hiroshima to meet with Mr. Yuuki Yoshida, a victim of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. His story is incredible, but his outlook is more so.  Mr. Yoshida’s duty as a survivor, in his words, is to share his story and instill the great fear that nuclear weapons deserve.  His goal is to make sure the disaster of August 1945, the use of atomic or nuclear weapons, never occurs again. His message, along with those of the other remaining survivors, is invaluable for this purpose.

Mr. Yuuki Yoshida, A-Bomb Survivor in Luzon, Philippines

Mr. Yoshida, who is 79 years old and has been crippled by Polio since birth, miraculously escaped death when the atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima.  His younger brother died two weeks later, and his eldest sister narrowly survived after undergoing more than a dozen operations.  She gave birth to a son after fifteen years despite strong worries about radiation.  (Her son, Mr. Kazufumi Yamashita, studied in Berlin under the guidance of the famous conductor Mr. Herbert von Karajan and has become one of the most popular conductors in Japan.)

Mr. Yoshida and his family are Japanese but have a surprising background.  Mr. Yoshida’s mother was American.  Born in Hawaii, she moved to Hiroshima before World War II and gave birth to her children there.  In 2008 Mr. Yoshida moved to Luzon, Philippines, to honor those who died there at the hands of the Japanese military.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s Global Survivors

It had always been my impression that the victims of the atomic bombs were Japanese. But, after hearing of Mr. Yoshida’s American mother, I have since learned that the United States didn’t just bomb the Japanese in August 1945, but also citizens of China, Korea, the United States, the Philippines, the Netherlands, and Brazil—perhaps even many other countries.  There were survivors from all of these nations as well.  I had completely missed this perspective.  Survivors from all countries are carrying forth their story to deter future nuclear disasters.  This global memory is a bridge from suffering to peace that we cannot lose.

When I learned of the survivors from across the world, I thought perhaps there were other nuclear cases I should consider.  Were there other atomic weapons survivors to be included this message? How do victims of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, and other nuclear energy accidents, fit in with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims?  What about the victims of nuclear bomb tests in Nevada, the Pacific Islands, and other countries?

In 2007 I visited Moscow to attend a conference chaired by my old friend, Dr. Evgeny Velikhov, former vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and oversaw the cleanup of the Chernobyl disaster.

He made it very clear to me that Chernobyl was caused by human error.  An accident from the use of nuclear energy is tragic, but very different from the malicious and purposeful destruction of two cities.  He also told me that, although there were many victims of the bomb tests—especially many indigenous people in Nevada—they were not killed in an act of war, so their situation is not directly comparable to that of the survivors in Japan.

Carrying Their Message Forward with the Nobel Peace Prize

All survivors from so many nations have suffered so much and yet have demonstrated to society that we should provide a peaceful life for our children without hateful attitudes. The survivors are getting old and we could not have learned the valuable lessons they share if they had not continued to live or if they did not make such extraordinary efforts to live longer in order to pass their message on to us. I fear that they have little time left with us to continue sharing their message, and that we should work now to make sure it is known as widely as possible.

How can we recognize their lofty mission and express our gratitude for their efforts to bridge hatred and create a peace that has its foundation in the non-use of nuclear weapons? 

Time Magazine named “YOU” as 2006’s Person of the Year.  What a powerful message. We each have the power to shape world.   If all of the atomic bomb survivors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a group, the impact of their message would reach new heights and the Committee would establish a new precedent in who—a group, not just an individual or institution—could receive the prize. And what better way to honor Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s global survivors’ great push for peace while bringing a powerful but fading message to the forefront of public consciousness?

A copy of Nobel Peace Prize award and its citation would be presented to each survivor by governors or mayors in countries of Japan, America, China, Korea, Philippines, Netherlands, Brazil and any other countries with survivors. I have no doubt that such an occasion would promote a position that is against nuclear weapons in a non-political manner and do much for reducing violence and the serious nuclear threat we face.

The epitaph carved into the stone coffin at the Hiroshima City Peace Memorial reads:

    “Let all souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evils.”

We the world have a moral obligation to pass the torch of positive force on to the next generations so that they may partake in our wisdom, not just our mistakes.  The survivors and victims of the atomic bombs have sacrificed much to pass on this torch.  By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to all of the atomic bombs’ survivors–a group from many nations–the Nobel Peace Committee would honor a generation devoted to creating peace rather than resenting harm, as well as underscore its commitment to stopping these evils from reoccurring.

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