Every Second Counts for the Survivors – Virtual Testimony Sessions Featuring Guests Junko Watanabe and Mariko Higashino from Hiroshima

It has been more than 75 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each year, there is less opportunity for the voices of survivors to be heard. However, through initiatives like Peace Boat’s project, ‘Every Second Counts for the Survivors’, we are able to hear first hand testimonies from Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombs. This also enables us to pass down the stories of the Hibakusha, as well as other people who have personal experiences with nuclear weapons.

Since 2008, Peace Boat has been organizing the “Global Voyage for a Nuclear-free World: Peace Boat Hibakusha Project,” through which over 170 Hibakusha have given personal testimonies on their experiences as atomic bomb survivors. Peace Boat is also an International Steering Group member of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Both Peace Boat and ICAN believe that the testimonials of the resilient survivors have the power to deeply move people and draw attention to the humanitarian consequences these weapons cause. The opportunities to listen first-hand to a Hibakusha are becoming less and less, and so Peace Boat is celebrating their lives and work through this project.

This is why on April 14th, the University of North Carolina Greensboro hosted Ms. Junko Watanabe in coordination with Peace Boat. On April 15th, in collaboration with the East Asia Committee (of Bachelor Students of International Studies at Leiden University, Peace Boat also hosted Mariko Higashino, a second-generation Hibakusha, who came to tell her mother and grandmother’s story of surviving the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

At the University of NC Greensboro, Ms. Watanabe shared the inspiring story of her resilient journey as a Hibakusha in a virtual event with students from various backgrounds. She recounted her experience with the black rain following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when she was just 2 years old, and how she only found out that she was a Hibakusha when she was an adult at age 38. Since then, Ms. Watanabe has been turning her experience into a positive way to make impact for disarmament, advocating internationally for the abolition of nuclear weapons. 

As a second-generation Hibakusha born in 1952, Ms. Higashino’s testimony consisted of the survival stories of her mother and grandmother. Her mother Chisako was 17 at the time. At the moment of the bombing, she saw a blinding flash of light and was unconscious for a time. Waking up later, she could not move her legs. She looked up at the sky, and saw something like an enormous cloud, black and white, both cloud and smoke at the same time, heading to the north. She forced herself to get up and saw people severely injured by the bombing. She was also exposed to the black rain. Chisako then searched for her mother, Mariko’s grandmother, through the debris. It took her six days. Ms. Higashino explained the difficulties after the bombing to find food and medical treatment. Her mother compared the situation to a living inferno.

Later in life, her mother advocated at the United Nations and continued to plead for the abolition of nuclear weapons. She asked governments to neither create nor use these weapons. Atomic bombs do not only affect the people that are directly touched by its explosion, but have a negative impact and continue to hurt generations to come. Ms. Higashino explained the differences between an atomic bomb and a conventional bomb, particularly the vast effect that radiation has on the human body. The radioactive effects last for decades and never disappear. 

Attendees also heard the heartfelt and touching stories of others that have been affected by the bombing, and how they live with the effects of the bombing to this day. Although Ms. Watanabe does not remember the actual day of the bombing, through her peace activism she was exposed to stories of others and studied about what happened on that day. Radiation can be carried through multiple generations, and many survivors fear that their children will also have diseases which might be connected. The impacts of nuclear weapons also go beyond physical effects – they can still be felt today, as the emotional wounds of the survivors. Ms. Watanabe explained that Hibakusha have experienced a lot of discrimination, for example rumours which discouraged people from marrying a Hibakusha. This has been emotionally draining for the survivors.

The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons on society is unimaginable. Ms. Watanabe and Ms. Higashino gave us a glimpse of the difficulties survivors face on a daily basis – both physically and mentally. We need to pass on the stories and accounts of those impacted by atomic bombs to truly understand the gravity of these weapons, which are now made thousands more times powerful. In closing, Ms. Higashino shared her thoughts towards peace: “There is nothing in this world that is more brutal and tragic than war; nuclear weapons should not be used on this earth for the third time. Only peace can bring happiness”. “Knowing the dangers, and not doing anything is the worst,” said Christelle Barakat, a Youth Champion for Disarmament and student moderator of the April 14th testimony session, who called for participants to take action and further educate themselves on this important topic. 

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