Victory over Japan Day: 68 Years Later

Japanese surrender, Tokyo Bay, 1945

Japanese surrender, Tokyo Bay, 1945

By Robert Israel

It was just a small boxed advertisement, tucked away in the back of Editor and Publisher (E&P) magazine. Back in the day, E&P was go-to source for job and fellowship announcements (pre-World Wide Web).

I might have ignored the ad had it not been for the telephone call inviting me to meet an elderly survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bombing in 1945, a certain Mrs. Sakue Shimohira, who was 8 when the second atomic bomb fell that ended World War II. She was traveling to my hometown after having appeared before the United Nations in New York to testify at a disarmament meeting there.

Calls like this to me at the weekly newspaper where I worked were daily occurrences. But the timing was uncanny. The boxed ad in E&P described a 10-week residence in Japan to interview and to chronicle the stories of survivors like Mrs. Shimohira, known in Japan as hibakusha. Sponsored by Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, Chogoku Shimbun, it was named The Akiba Project, after its brainchild, Tad Akiba, a Tufts University professor who later became Mayor of Hiroshima.

Coincidentally, the call and my noticing the ad for the fellowship took place days before the second Monday in August, Victory over Japan Day, a designated state holiday in Rhode Island. Rhode Island is the only state in the union that still observes this holiday.

For many years, as a youngster coming of age in Providence, I had marched in V-J Day parades downtown with my dad, a World War II veteran. He would wear his military uniform, I my Boy Scout khakis. The atomic bombs meant father’s life had been spared from being summoned into further combat. It meant we had won against the Japanese aggressors who attacked Pearl Harbor. It meant that the Japanese got what they deserved.

But how is an 8-year-old girl, Sakue Shimohira, who crawled out of a bomb shelter to see her hometown of Nagasaki devastated, responsible for the preceding carnage? And, yes, even if I believed her adult leaders had forced this upon her and her fellow Japanese, how does one come to terms with the radioactive sickness that had plagued her throughout her life? She came into adulthood permanently damaged by her exposure to radioactivity.

And so I attended the lecture, met Mrs. Shimohira, and was moved by her personal testimony. After her lecture, when I told her I had noticed the fellowship to interview her fellow hibakusha in Japan, she urged me to apply and graciously offered to recommend me.

Later that summer, I was selected. One of the members of the selection panel was John Hersey, the author whose first-person account of traveling to Hiroshima in the months after the bomb fell there appeared in the New Yorker. I visited Hersey in Vineyard Haven. A tall, soft-spoken man, he told me his life was forever changed when he interviewed the survivors. He said that, I, too, should expect the same.

Hersey was right. I am still haunted by the testimonies I heard during my 10-week stay in Japan, especially when V-J Day rolls around each year. Yet it is not only what they witnessed that continues to disturb me. It’s the fact that nuclear weapons still exist that causes me chagrin.

“Scientists and other nuclear-related experts exploring the damage from a postulated nuclear attack found once again that the only way to protect citizens from such an attack is the total abolition of nuclear weapons,” Tad Akiba declared a few years ago. “This is precisely why the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion state clearly that all nations are obligated to engage in good-faith negotiations leading to complete nuclear disarmament.”

The voices of the hibakusha who witnessed the horrors of atomic destruction and radioactive fallout — most of them today are in their 70s, or older — will soon be silenced forever. They urge us to honor VJ Day not by forgetting the lives lost during a war they brought on themselves, but by endorsing Tad Akiba’s call for complete nuclear disarmament. It is a fitting legacy. It remains up to us to either heed the call, or to continue to ignore it at our own peril.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be contacted at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A version of this piece appeared on the editorial page in the August 12, 2013 edition of The Providence Journal.

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