My anger motivates and fuels me in my activism against nuclear weapons

July 30, 2020

On Thursday August 6th, it will be exactly 75 years since the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were carried out. Setsuko Thurlow was 13 years old when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, miraculously she survived. Setsuko has become one of the faces of the global fight against nuclear weapons. In December 2017, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and PAX. Despite her busy schedule, PAX’s nuclear specialist Susi Snyder was allowed to call her.

Susi Snyder: “Setsuko thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, you have told this story before and every time you tell this, you bring the reality of that day, the 6th of August 1945, 75 years ago, back to life. And I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about the impact of that bombing, of that experience on your life?”

Setsuko Thurlow: “I witnessed so much human suffering in Hiroshima as a child. The war ended and the city soldiers started coming home without legs, without arms, incapable of working. Well at least they came home, there were many households where the fathers never came home. The wives had to look after the children, everybody became homeless. They had no place to live, no food to feed the children. You know, we were semi-starving in homeless conditions.

The Japanese central government did nothing to help us survivors, for twelve years after the bombing they did nothing, can you imagine? It was the cities people, and even the survivors, who did something to help. Our heads were filled with a million questions. If the US is a Christian nation, is this the way Christians of that country behave? Killing innocent children, the elderly, and women? They just killed each one of us like animals. Such barbarism. So, people had questions. But my school teachers, you see, we had daily chapel service where every day at a regular time we could raise questions and have a discussion. That provided the real healing for us. I really consider myself lucky I was a student at that school. No other schools have had that kind of opportunity.”

“It presented the opportunity for me to think of my future seriously. I was only 13, but that is an important time, when young people start thinking: ‘’what will I be doing for the future, and why? What is the best future plan?’’ I was lucky that I didn’t lose my parents. You really need supportive people around you to get your soul to heal. Watching adult survivors gave me the direction. Which was to do something to change the world and to improve the world. To make a better world for people. That is the kind of basic impact the A-bomb experience provided for me.”

SS: “It sounds that that kind of opportunity and that space to discuss also gave a little bit of healing of the anger. I would have been very angry, I can imagine.”

ST: “The anger came later, I often wondered about that, because on that very day I wasn’t feeling anything. There was a total lack of emotional response to what I was experiencing. I was watching the dead and the suffering of humanity. I watched my own sister and her four year old child as they burned, their bodies were black and swollen. They were nearly dead for several days. They kept begging for water. We slept together in the same room, we wanted to look after them. But we didn’t have food or medication or anything.”

“When they did die, the soldiers came. They dug a hole, threw their bodies in it, poured gasoline, threw lit matches and cremated them. They were turning their bodies around, saying: ‘The stomach is not burned, the brain is not burned’. They were standing there, and I was just watching it, without any emotional response, not even tears.”

“That memory troubled me for several years. What kind of human being am I? My dear sister and her child treated like animals. There was no human dignity associated with that cremation. I questioned myself, I blamed myself, I must have been feeling guilty. For several years I suffered from that. Once at the university, after I started studying psychology, I was particularly interested in learning how people, human beings, behaved in conditions like that. I found it interesting that an American psychologist from Princeton University came and lived in Hiroshima. He wanted to do some psychoanalytical study of the survivors.”

“He published a book called ‘’Death in Life’’ by doctor Robert Lifton. One of the things he talked about was a psychic closing off. In a situation like that, our psyche just automatically closes off to protect us. I read this book, it really helped me and eventually that assisted me to stop blaming myself. I wasn’t such an inhumane wicked human being. And I agreed with him that it was a natural phenomenon. And I talked with many of the surviving students about their experiences. Many of them told me that they lost their entire family but couldn’t even cry tears. So, I concluded; this is a common phenomenon for people in a situation like that. So I don’t feel guilty about that. Yes, in those days I didn’t have a sense of anger. Actually, I became more and more angry as I got older. After I became more mature and more intellectual, capable of understanding the background, the motives of the use of nuclear weapons and so forth, I got angrier and angrier. Of course, I’m glad I’ve successfully transformed that anger into constructive energy. I haven’t remained angry per se, but the anger motivates me and lets me do something about the source of this problem. It fuels me in my activism against nuclear weapons.”

SS: “You are now one of the most known and inspiring global campaigners against nuclear weapons. How did that journey start?”

ST: “Well, I guess initially I wasn’t looking at the world community. It was up to Hiroshima itself; it was their problem in Nagasaki. But gradually that changed. You have to remember, we had seven years of US occupation after Japan surrendered to the occupation forces. So, the American general MacArthur controlled Japan and the emperor disappeared. We lived in a very oppressive society. MacArthur said he came to japan with two purposes: One is to demilitarize, the second is to bring democracy. But as far as dealing with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he did completely opposite things with the democracy.”

“For example, if the newspaper company did an interview with a survivor and wrote the article about their daily suffering, that newspaper company was ordered to close shop. Because that kind of article should not be written. You see, what we concluded: The United States sold the nuclear weapons as a scientific and technological triumph . And the horrible aspects of nuclear weapons can’t be known by the entire world.”

“Another aspect of nuclear weapons is the unspeakable suffering inflicted by the bomb. The human suffering. That was not to be known by the world. This is why they censored the  papers. They started confiscating any writing or people’s correspondence diaries, literary work, films, movies, magazines, even medical reports, anything which indicated human suffering inflicted by the atomic bombs. Those things had to be confiscated.”

“That was the kind of oppressive society we lived in, while under the control of occupation forces. So initially we went through the psychic numbing conditions because of the bomb.”

“And after that the military forces created that kind of environment. People had to learn not to freely remember and talk about their painful past experiences. People had to live in silence.”

SS: “Let me ask you, it’s been 75 years…”

ST: “Before you go to 75 years, you start asking me why I went to the states to study sociology and all that. Because I thought I wanted to be like those helpful selfless adults. Who were rebuilding not only their own lives and family, but the community. The president of my school advised me to go to the states and learn the job and then come back to Hiroshima. I wanted to go and come back and be the woman leader in Hiroshima. That’s how I pictured it, that’s why I went to the United States. But something important happened when I went to the States. Well that was in 1954, when the United States exploded the biggest hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll (an island in Micronesia). I remember that created such big and upsetting news, especially in Japan. Even in that time Japanese people did not fully understand what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because of all kind of reasons. Lack of development of communications services and occupation forces and oppression and all that.”

“But anyway, because of that Bikini Atoll incident, Japanese fisherman were killed and all the fish Japanese depended on every night for dinner, everything had to be thrown away, back into the water. For the first time the civil rights were directly connected to their day to day life. So overnight Japans largest social movement developed. That was the anti-nuclear peace movement. It took so long, but that was 1959 and that’s the time I arrived in the US.”

“They gave me a scholarship and I came over. The press surrounded me and wanted my opinion on what is going on in the Marshall Island and how the Japanese are taking it. Japan had a huge movement and what did I think about that? So I made a very open and honest criticism on American nuclear weapons testing, I said: Enough is enough. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was enough, now those people in the South Pacific are suffering. The United States should stop preparing for nuclear war.”

“Anyway, I said something like that. I just arrived in the United States and I started getting unsigned hate letters, they told me to go home. They threatened my life. I just arrived at school, but I couldn’t attend the classroom. That’s the real trauma that I experienced, and that is an important experience. I had to do soul searching, because I couldn’t go home, and how was I going to live in North America? Should I just pretend, just stop talking about it? And then thank goodness, I don’t know how I was able to but I decided, if I don’t speak up, who else can do that? With the strongest form of commitment, I came out, so that was a turning point for me to dedicate my life to the cause of disarmament. It was the loneliest time of my life I think, I came to a foreign land, I just arrived. I was told to go home, but I stayed and with a new purpose.”

SS: “You had a lot of guts, and you still have a lot of guts. All of these different things you have done over the years and so much has changed in the world since that day, 75 years ago, to where we are now. What is the most important thing to get to disarmament?”

ST: “I have been giving the human perspective. What do bombs do to people? I always try to keep it human. Put the face to the issue of nuclear weapons and discussion. It’s not really a literal study We’re not discussing the scientific or engineering theories on weapon systems, we simply share our personal thoughts and beliefs, which are based on experience. We thought that we were giving that human perspective, but somehow we have not done a decent job. At least not effective enough to move the population of the world.”

SS: “You know, honestly Setsuko, I think people are afraid of the truth. Because anyone who can do that, who can sit with you and hear your whole story, there is only one option and that option is nuclear abolition. You know Setsuko, you have been such a strong part of our work here in the Netherlands. Without your story, the Dutch government would have never joined the Ban Treaty negotiations. Without your words of encouragement, honestly. I want to let you know that we’re following up the letter that you wrote to our Prime-Minster with another letter. We have a very specific call, we want our Prime-Minister to go on record and to say publicly: ‘We remember what happened, we honor those who’s lives have been lost, we honor those who lived through it and we pledge: never again’.”

ST: “Ooohh wow, that’s amazing! Well, thank you, thank you, thank you. I have to let the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki know about that.”

SS: “Well, let’s hope the prime-minister says that, that’s what we’re asking him to say. And if he does, we hope that it will open the door for the Dutch to join the Ban Treaty and to do more, so that it really does never happen again.”

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