Last week, as Americans marked the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a different kind of Japanese vessel paid a visit to Oahu.
That ship, called the Peace Boat, belongs to a Japanese non-governmental organization using a chartered passenger ship to sail the world promoting “peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.”
Established in 1983 in response to Japanese government censorship of past military aggression in Asia and the Pacific, the Peace Boat operates cruises for passengers mostly from Japan, but also other (mostly East Asian) countries with an emphasis on education and multi-cultural engagement.
“The basic philosophy of Peace Boat is that we bring people to different countries and cultures and facilitate face to face interactions and exchange,” said Peace Boat international coordinator Sumiko Hatakeyama. “That way people have a more realistic understanding of what is happening in the world and how social and global problems are affecting people in different places.”
Hatakeyama helps facilitate the Peace Boat Hibakusha Project which, over 10 years, has brought more than 170 atomic bomb survivors — called hibakusha in Japanese — to speak of their experiences with war and peace in cities around the world.
Like the dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors, it’s becoming more difficult to find hibakusha who are able to take part in multi-nation ship voyages that last roughly three months.
Peace Boat’s current voyage (its 99th journey) left its home port of Yokohama on Sept. 1, and will have called on 24 ports in 21 countries when it arrives in Japan on Monday. Passengers include two hibakusha — both women: Michiko Tsukamoto and Tamiko Sora who were children living in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 when their hometown was obliterated by a 15-kiloton atomic bomb.
During the Peace Boat’s two-day stop on Oahu last week, Tsukamoto, Sora and others visited Pearl Harbor before making an appearance at the University of Hawaii’s Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution to present a talk entitled “Surviving the Atomic Bombing.”
Each woman spoke for about 20 minutes through an interpreter to some 60 undergraduates and a handful of faculty on the last day of a Survey in Peace and Conflict class taught by Professor Brien Hallett.
After recounting their experiences as the world’s first atomic bomb survivors, Sora apologized for Pearl Harbor to her American audience with one student reciprocating with an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to Hallett.
“Hibakusha testimony is extraordinarily emotional and there really aren’t a lot of questions you can ask about this experience,” Hallett said. “It’s so unique and emotionally devastating that questions don’t come to people’s mind. People are trying to process what they’ve just heard.”
Following their UH presentation, as the Peace Boat prepared to set sail for Japan, Tsukamoto and Sora reflected on their visit in a Skype interview.
Sora, who was 3 years old when the bomb exploded less than a mile from her home, said she was living on the borderline between those who lived and those who died.
Recalling her visit to Pearl Harbor, Sora said the thought of the lives lost at Pearl Harbor and in the broader war pained her and as she imagined the heartbreak of both American and Japanese parents, tears fell from her eyes.
“In my heart I felt a renewed conviction that we absolutely must not wage war,” she said.
Speaking of the current U.S.-Japan relationship, Sora said, “Japan is in a very weak position, I think. Japan needs to get out of this unfair relationship which is to the U.S.’s advantage and we Japanese should think for ourselves.”
In December 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined President Barack Obama at a ceremony at Pearl Harbor in which he said “we must never again repeat the horrors of war.” Describing the US-Japan relationship an “alliance of hope,” Abe vowed Japan would “never again wage war.”
Yet in recent years the U.S.-Japan relationship has placed a greater emphasis on U.S. arms sales and increased military spending, including the purchase of a U.S. anti-missile weapons system (tested in Hawaii) and $4 billion worth of F-35 stealth fighters, riling Japan’s neighbors, Korea, China, and Russia.
Last July, Japan’s military, known as Ground Self-Defense Forces, executed a joint offensive rocket exercise with the U.S. Army for the first time, firing surface-to-surface missiles and HIMARS rockets from Kauai during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercises.
As for Abe’s 2016 Pearl Harbor renunciation of war, Sora said, “I cannot believe him.”
She added, “If Japan wanted to produce nuclear weapons, it has the ability and support to build them. It’s possible that under certain circumstances, Japan could do so.”
Although Japan does not have nuclear weapons, Sora said, the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 caused many deaths and there are still people unable to return home.
“As long as nations continue to possess nuclear weapons, there may come a day in the future when they will be used, possibly by mistake, and the whole world could be destroyed,” said the life-long Hiroshima resident.
As a 10-year-old during the atomic bombing, Michiko Tsukamoto suffered radiation exposure with her mother. Her father died six days after the bomb and her mother 16 years later from radiation-related cancer. She described her own feelings at Pearl Harbor as “very complicated.”
“I felt the futility and stupidity of war very keenly as well as just how much ordinary citizens are misled by leaders who make bad decisions.”
Growing up, Tsukamoto said she never recognized the concept of hibakusha, but has come to recognize that she herself is one over a quarter century of offering public testimony and appealing for the abolition of nuclear arms.
When political leaders are unsteady, she said, the outcome leads to incidents like Hawaii’s Jan. 13 false missile alert or America’s decision to spend $1.2 trillion to modernize and maintain its own nuclear arsenal.
Tsukamoto was reluctant to discuss politics but said she felt that even after the Singapore Trump-Kim summit in June, the danger remains.
In a world with complex and evolving threats, Tsukamoto said it is very important for young people to remain hopeful. Her own source of hope was seeing the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and widespread international support for the last year’s United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which will enter into legal force once it has been adopted and ratified by 50 nations.
That treaty calls for the global prohibition of all nuclear weapons and has so far been signed by 69 countries and ratified by 19.
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