Survival, faith and the cause of peace

Setsuko HattoriFor Setsuko Hattori, the Hiroshima Memorial Cathedral for World Peace has been the center of her spiritual life for decades. She is a member of the Catholic parish, known as the Nobori-cho parish, that meets in the church built by a fellow atomic-bomb survivor, the late Jesuit Fr. Hugo Enomiya Makibi Lassalle.

She would become acquainted with the church in the grim postwar years after the bombing, drawn by the music performances and lessons arranged by the priests. Lassalle would become play a role in introducing Zen meditation to Western Christians. For Hattori like other members of the parish, church life revolves much more around prayer, family and the cause of peace, though she knew Lassalle well – keeping in touch with him after he returned to Germany in failing health late in life – and was well aware of Lassalle’s interest in Zen. When I interviewed her in 2009, she recalled his performing on the cello in the early postwar years, an instrument that she said he had played since childhood.

Hattori was just a 14-year-old high school girl, assigned to work for a war-related effort when a U.S. airplane crew dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. She was at home, just over a mile (1.7 kilometers) from the blast when she saw the flash of light from the explosion. Then she heard a tremendous blast, and her house was rocked.

In a talk that was published in a 2006 magazine article, she said the house felt like an earthquake had struck. “First, I was flung into the air and immediately onto the floor. On the floor, the smoke and dust were choking me and it was difficult to breathe.

“Suddenly, the ceiling fell and the pillars of my house collapsed all around me. It became almost impossible to breathe, and I thought, ‘Aah, … I’m going to die for sure!’ However, because my house was only one story high, I was able to escape outside.” She was bleeding from cuts caused by flying glass, and her clothes were badly shredded. The scenes she saw in the street reminded her of famous manga books, The Barefoot Gen series, drawn by a fellow survivor, Keiji Nakazawa. She would soon be caught in the heavily radioactive black rain that fell on Hiroshima in the coming hours.

The next day, her father hadn’t shown up, and she and her mother searched the city fruitlessly looking for him. It would be sometime before they would hear for sure that he had died in the bombing, while working outside on one of the building demolition projects to protect against fire bombings.

Their house had been completely destroyed in the bombing, and Hattori told me that they were living like modern homeless people. Hattori had been hurt and was taken to relatives’ places to rest in the days after the bombing. But within a month, a wound she suffered on the side had healed.

By September, she and her mother were able to put together a hutch with wood they had been gathering from the countryside, burned pillars from building debris and tin they found and used for fashioning a roof. They lived there for months, until the city began to provide some simple housing for people.

She remembered the primitive conditions of their hutch. “When it rained, we could not sleep, because the rain drops fell on us,” she said. “So we put up an umbrella.”

But Hattori was also a person who could appreciate what she had, recalling other nights there. “I could see lights [coming] from the roof and I thought peace was wonderful.” When they got into one of the hastily erected one-story housing, she asked how long the house might be there. “They said, ‘Ten years.’ And I thought, Oh, good.”

As she was exposed to the music and the priests’ budding music school she attended at night (which eventually became the Elizabeth Music University,) she became interested in Christianity and was baptized four years after the war. She felt she could pray for the war dead and “express the peace in my soul.”

Hattori has been a consistent advocate peace, sometimes giving public speeches about her experience. When we talked, she recalled the solemn anniversary memorials to the bombing victims of the immediate postwar years. The events have become large, somewhat politicized. But there are many smaller memorials on or around Aug. 6 that a good number of the survivors and their families have come to prefer.

This year, she spoke at a memorial mass the day before in the Cathedral. And she struck a theme of the evil of war, no matter what weapons are used. A reporter for Japan’s courageously liberal paper, Asahi, quoted her as saying, “Children killed in armed conflicts around the world today and young victims of the atomic bombing appear similar to me. ”

She made much the same point when we talked in the late spring of 2009. The interview was on the eighth anniversary of her husband’s death, and she said that he had barely survived the hellish U.S. firebombing of Tokyo. “He did not talk much about his experience,” she said. But he told that he had cried. The death and destruction was massive, and deliberate.

“He also said that what he experienced was just the same as what the citizens of Hiroshima experienced,” she said. “The only difference is the radiation. Because of the radiation, the people of Hiroshima suffered a long time. This is the only difference. War is wrong.

“There are many Hiroshimas around the world. Nuclear weapons are wrong, and war is wrong.”

She said she didn’t get involved in the difficult political issues, but she praised the work of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s mayors and other mayors through the Mayors for Peace organization. It has attempted to build pressure for nuclear abolition at the grassroots level around the world (It currently claims members in 160 nations, territories and other regions).

While she may not see herself as heavily involved in the politics of peace, she was clearly proud of the quiet ways that her family picked up the cause. She said that all her children have, in their own ways, worked for peace – as a social worker and member of a night patrol looking to help the homeless, as a Catholic school staff member, as a city staffer and as a Catholic priest. Of the ordination of her son, Fr. Daisuke Hattori, she said, “It was a great day that my son became a priest. So, I thought my whole life was rewarded.”

While she described herself as being perhaps the happiest among the hibakusha she knows, she has never lost awareness of the burden of having experienced the atomic bomb. In her talk with students published in 2006, she ended up with a poem and a hope. “Alas, we shall not forgive the two A-bombs. So we must oppose the third. Throughout our homeland … and throughout the world.”

Part of a series honoring the survivors of the atomic bombings. Earlier stories are herehere, here and here.

Research for this and other articles on this site was done with a Fulbright grant. Joe Copeland can be reached at

Copyright 2014, Joe Copeland

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