An elementary disaster

This will be Hiroshima’s busiest and saddest week, with events marking the Aug. 6 anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing. Honkawa Elementary School, which lies only about 500 yards from the bomb’s hypocenter, is one of the places with special events.

The school maintains a peace museum in a surviving part of an old building and opens itself up for visits throughout a 10-day period. Miho Iwata, who has deep family ties to the school, guided me through the peace museum with a mutual friend doing the interpreting.

Iwata’s mother, Chizuko, lived in the neighborhood and was a middle-school student at the time of the bombing. Some blocks away from the elementary school, her family had their home and tea shop — Iwata herself runs a tea shop on pretty much the same spot these days. There were six family members, her parents and three younger sisters, two of whom hadn’t started school yet. Chizuko, who was 16, and a 14-year-old sister both left home to go to work assignments under Japan’s system of mobilizing students to support the war effort. The sister was part of a work group assigned to tear down buildings to create fire breaks in the lively neighborhood that is the site of today’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Chizuko had been sent to work at a factory that was far enough removed from the blast that she and most of her classmates survived, although she awoke from the blast shock to find herself under rubble.

In case of a disaster, she and her family had a plan to meet at a second home outside of town. Chizuko made it there, but by evening no one else from her immediate family had shown up. An uncle arrived, and a day or two later he went with Chizuko back into the city. In the charred debris left by a fire that swept through the neighborhood, they found that her father and 6-year-old sister had died in one spot, and the mother and 3-year-old sister died near the kitchen sink. They had clutched each other so tightly that some of their clothing wasn’t burned.

Her sister was in an area where many of the thousands of deaths among middle school students occurred. The bombing target was a bridge just at the north edge of the island where the sister was assigned to work. The family never found any remains of the sister.

Honkawa Elementary (then called Honkawa National School) lost 400 students, 10 teachers and the principal. One student miraculously survived. Iwata said the survivor began telling her story after years of silence.

Besides Iwata, her two sons both attended Honkawa during their elementary years and that led, in a roundabout way, to a children’s book that tells her mother’s story. Like Iwata, the writer, Natsumi Amano, was a mother of a boy attending Honkawa and volunteered at the school’s peace museum. She heard Iwata telling visitors about her mother’s experiences and, with an artist, produced the book, told through a modern child’s eyes, “Iwata’s Grandmother.”

The book was finished in 2006 and Iwata’s mother, who is still alive, liked the book very much. The book included a beautiful photo of her entire family taken just days before the bombing.

The family, Iwata said, had feared that their house could be destroyed in one of the air raids devastating Japan, which could no longer even mount serious air defense of its homeland. So, they had a photographer come to the house at the start of August.

Much later, Chizuko happened to run into the photographer who reminded her of the photo shoot. He gave her the photo that became a family treasure.IMG_0524.JPG

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