In November 2012, a couple of friends and I had the great pleasure and honour to meet Kiyomi Kohno, an 80 year old hibakusha. Kiyomi survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945.
I have been wanting to tell the story of our short time with Kiyomi for a while now. I gave a short talk to fellow students at Uni in May last year, 6 months after meeting Kiyomi. But I wanted to relate to a wider audience the experience of meeting such an extraordinary woman.
This kind of writing does not come naturally to me, I’m afraid, so it will be perhaps not as eloquent(!) as my normal writing, but please bear with me!
We met Kiyomi only for an hour, with her daughter Nobuko as translator, and a friend of hers. To say it was emotional is an understatement! It was clearly difficult talking about some of the things she saw and remembers vividly, and I found that incredibly brave for her to open up like that to three strangers. I can’t speak for my friends Rami and Neil, but I cried for half the time I was listening to her – I just couldn’t help myself. Afterwards we got to chat for a little while, and we got a photo of us with Nobuko and Kiyomi.
Complementing Kiyomi’s talk were drawings which she had made of the events. They are published in a book called I Will Never Forget That Day, and her full story that she read to us is available as a PDF through this link.
We were given a copy of her book to take away with us, to let people read and look at the drawings. I have taken the liberty of scanning in some of the pictures which I found particularly arresting when she was telling her story. They are not exactly as presented in the book because I’ve cropped them a little and added her copyright. I hope she doesn’t mind!
If you read her story, you will know that Kiyomi was not in Hiroshima on the 6th of August. But her two sisters were, and on the following day, she and her mother traveled about 30km from their vilage to Hiroshima to look for her sisters. The head image on this post is of Kiyomi in 1945 – a 14 year old girl learning to fight with sharpened bamboo sticks. If Japan was invaded, school children were prepared to fight too.
Arriving in Hiroshima, they were greeted with the smell of burned and rotting flesh, the smell so strong that Kiyomi could not open her eyes at first. When she did, she saw that Hiroshima had “disappeared”. Her picture, below, shows the island of Ni-Jima on the horizon – the previous day it would not have been visible because the buildings of the city would have obscured it.
Much of the rest of the story is Kiyomi and her mother walking south through Hiroshima to find her sisters, and describing what they saw on the way:
She and her mother passed people with skin hanging from them, people dying of thirst, bodies in the rivers, people sick and burned and dying everywhere.
Both of her sisters, Midori and Sumiko, were found alive and safe that day. Sumiko had a young baby, less than a year old. The baby died a few days after the bombing, and although Sumiko had radiation sickness she survived for many years after, and I believe that Midori is still alive.
Many people continued to die in the days and months after the bombing. In Kiyomi’s village, her friend Fumiko died from her wounds. Kiyomi describes having to burn bodies in the village, with the bones put into hand-made boxes for burial; this took them four months for all the dead…
Before our meeting with Kiyomi, we had a guided tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and some of it’s more significant monuments. These included the Hiroshima Genbaku Dome (aka A-bomb Dome), which was formerly at the heart of the commercial district, and was pretty much directly beneath the bomb when it exploded some 600m above the ground. We were also taken to the Memorial Cenotaph and our guide told us that in a special ceremony on the anniversary of the bombing, the names of former hibakusha who have died that year are added to the register of those who died as a result of the bombing. If I remember rightly, there’s around 260,000 names in the register, and something like 3,000 are added every year.
It was a very humbling and moving experience to meet Kiyomi. I cannot imagine the memories which she has of the horror of the bombing. But through organisations such as the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima (who organised our tour and meeting with Kiyomi (for free!) and with whom we stayed the night), Kiyomi has an opportunity to spread the message of peace and a dream of a world without nuclear weapons. For this, I am eternally grateful and is an experience I’m unlikely to ever forget.