Talking to the visitors

With an influx of visitors from around the world for Thursday’s 64th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and others groups make an effort to have more survivors speak to the public. This morning, Miyoko Matsubara gave a moving recollection at the museum of the terrors she faced that day as a 12-year-old middle school girl and in the intervening years.

Matsubara is one of very few survivors who regularly speak in English about their experiences to visitors. Earlier this summer, a group of students from U.S. colleges attending an exchange program at Sophia University in Tokyo seemed very moved after meeting her during a Hiroshima visit. She was a bit hard to understand at times that day. Today, perhaps the sound system was catching her voice a bit better, but it was a really powerful presentation. And she followed up with an evening talk to a group of visiting U.S., Canadian and Japanese students in a session at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, where she received a standing ovation.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Matsubara was a 7th grader, working with other students mobilized to help in the war effort. She was helping to take down buildings to clear a fire lane somewhat to the east of the center of town. She ended up being one of just 50 of 250 classmates to survive. As she noted in her talk at the museum, her home and her school were both considerably farther from the explosion. If she had been at either spot, she would not have suffered severe burns and hard, long-lasting keloid scars that plagued many survivors for years. But Japan was in desperate shape, and students from middle school upward were long since engaged in work supporting the doomed war effort.

With some 8,400 students from various schools working on outdoor demolition to help contain the devastation from the U.S. fire bombings it cities, the atomic bombing killed thousands of students. Most had already started their work when a single U.S. bomber flew overhead. Her best friend, Takiko, called Matsubara’s attention to the sound of a plane overhead, and Matsubara was looking up with her hands shielding her eyes from the sun when the bomb exploded.

She saw something very bright and dropped instantly to the ground. She lost consciousness in the blast that followed the flash of light, and when she came to some time later, she found she had been blown some meters from where she had been standing. In the darkness caused by the debris, she called for Takiko but didn’t receive any answer.

Matsubara had suffered terrible burns on her face and hands. A jacket that she had spent a whole day dying blue was shredded, but she was somewhat protected by having white clothing that reflected some of the heat from much of her body. Otherwise, she said, her burns might have killed her.

She made her way to a bridge over one of Hiroshima’s rivers and wanted to climb into the river. She was at first driven back by the sight of dead and horribly injured people, including a woman whose intestines were spilling out. had been split open. She got into the river and heard someone calling her name. It was a girl named Michiko, who was so badly burned that Matsubara couldn’t recognize her.

After Matsubara insisted that they head home, Michiko was able to walk with her to another bridge. Michiko said, “Miyoko, I cannot go any further.” Matsubara recalled urging Michiko, “Please stand up.” But Miyoko couldn’t move and urged Matsubara to go on.

Apparently, Michiko did wind up walking some distance on her own to reach help. But when her parents found her
three days later, she had already died. Matsubara was left with the regrets that have haunted so many survivors, thinking “If I could help her … she might have lived.”

Matsubara eventually ran into a neighbor who was heading to the city to search for her own daughter. She decided to help Matsubara home. For days, Matsubara was near death with the symptoms of radiation sickness. It would take seven months before Matsubara had healed enough to do go to school.

In the postwar years, she faced discrimination from her own society, where survivors were often shunned as potentially carrying a disease that could be spread. Her facial scars compounded the problem, killing her chances for jobs and marriage. But she eventually met with the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a famed pastor in Hiroshima whom John Hersey wrote about in “Hiroshima,” and found solace from Christian faith and purpose in peace efforts.

She is devoted to telling about her ordeals. “This is the experience of Hiroshima,” she said. “I hope that other cities can learn from our experience.”

In her mid-70s, Matsubara is a thin, stylishly crisp, impressive woman. “However,” she said, “the past continues to haunt me and other A-bomb survivors.” She has had breast cancer in 1988. Even when cancer has been beaten, she noted, there is a fear it could return, a terribly common situation among the survivors. “In a sense, for Hiroshima every day is Aug. 6,” she said.

She ended by recounting the efforts of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki to encourage disarmament and eventually full nuclear disarmament. “I hope that you join our efforts to convey the earnest wish of Hiroshima, which is the total elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

She rather indirectly refers to believing that the goal is not impossible to achieve if people unite. The stakes are certainly high enough.

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