The children of Gaza are suffering, as the children of war always suffer from the violence of those who should protect them. In these dark days when so many children are being killed and maimed and traumatized, we are also reminded that the atomic bombings in Japan 69 years ago were inflicted upon children.
One child was Sadako Sasaki who was just two years old when she was hit by the explosion one mile from ground zero on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima. Though she was blown out of the window of her home, she survived and grew to be a healthy girl who dreamed of becoming a teacher. However, nine years later she developed swellings on her neck and behind her ears and purple spots on her legs. She was diagnosed with leukemia and expected to live less than a year.
When she was in the hospital her best friend Chizuko brought her a gold origami paper crane, inspired by an ancient Japanese story that promises a wish will be granted to a person who folds one thousand origami cranes. Sadako began folding cranes, every day searching the hospital for scarce paper, even using medicine wrappings. She wrote: "I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world." Although the popular account is that she made 644 paper cranes, her mother claims that she made more than 1000 before she died on the morning of October 25, 1955 at the tender age of 12. In her last words to her family she thanked them for the mouthful of tea and rice that she had requested.
On my first visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park many years ago, I found the statue that commemorates Sadako's life. It was beautifully covered with thousands of origami cranes sent from all over the world. Sadako's determination to live has made the origami crane an enduring symbol of world peace, and teaching children how to fold paper cranes has become an act of passing on the message of peace to younger generations.
There were many other children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on those fateful days. Those who survived are called hibakusha. They have suffered ill health due to radiation exposure and discrimination, now renewed with fears from the ongoing nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima. But some hibakusha have helped us to see beyond the sheer horror of what happened by telling their stories and inspiring us to create a peaceful and sustainable world.
Setsuko Thurlow is one hibakusha I met whose story was especially moving. Her childhood experience of witnessing the massive human suffering and devastation caused by the atomic bombing led her to serve society through the profession of social work. She also served organizations around the world in her journey from victim to activist. Through her work she transcends her own personal tragedies and becomes empowered to dedicate her life to the mission of the abolition of nuclear weapons as a threat to planetary survival. Learning about Japan’s crimes and atrocities in the war also enabled Setsuko to no longer see herself and other Japanese solely as victims but also as victimizers of others. She has persistently advocated that the truth be told about war and nuclear dangers.
Today the violence that has been inflicted upon children in Gaza is excused because the rockets were targeting soldiers. The horror of the atomic bombs was also smoke-screened from the American people by announcing that they had been dropped on military bases. The slaughter of children is ignored and justified by those who tell us that violence is needed to end violence. But I know that this is wrong when I see elderly hibakusha throwing up their fists and repeatedly crying out, "No more Hiroshimas. No more Nagasakis. No more hibakusha. No more war."
Setsuko's work was acknowledged by the Japanese government and she was appointed to address the United Nations General Assembly First Committee on October 26, 2011. She made a passionate plea for world peace and a world without nuclear weapons, closing with the following words:
"On the cenotaph in Peace Park in Hiroshima is an inscription which reads: 'Rest in peace; we shall not repeat the evil.' This has become the prayer and vow of many survivors, who are determined to make sure that the deaths of loved ones has not been in vain and that no human being will ever have to repeat their fate. I am committed to share the warning of Hiroshima until my last breath."
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu teaches psychology at Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University and is the author of When Half is Whole, Multicultural Encounters, and Synergy, Healing and Empowerment.
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