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Peace Story mini-series: Hiroshima Survivor's Life a Love Letter to New Zealand

June 27, 2024

In our Peace Story mini-series, DSC Research Fellow Dr Marcus Coll shares interesting insights from his PhD research into anti-nuclear activism through video and written content. In this episode, he tells the story of a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and her strong connection to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Bun Hashizume was 14 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. She was only 1.5 kilometres from the hypocentre and sustained serious injuries. Bun is now 93 years old and has never experienced a day of good health since the bombing.

I first connected with Bun in 2021 when she agreed to be a participant in my PhD research. My original plan was to travel to Japan to interview her face-to-face, but with the pandemic raging, I had to opt for virtual means via Zoom instead. In November 2023, I was finally able to meet Bun in person and spent two days with her in her home just south of Tokyo. This was the culmination of a four-year journey for me, and an experience I will never forget. As we mark the 79th anniversary of the atomic bombings this August, it’s important to pay tribute to the brave survivors like Bun, who continue to inspire those working for a nuclear free world.

Marcus Coll meeting Bun Hashizume at her home in Kamakura, Japan. November, 2023.

Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, survivors, or ‘hibakusha’ in Japanese, were faced with a future filled with trauma and hardship. For many years hibakusha often experienced discrimination in Japan due to their physical disabilities, various cancers, the irrational fear that radiation illnesses were contagious, and birth defects and infertility among survivor mothers. Many hibakusha fell silent, concealing their horrific experiences from those around them, sometimes even from their own children and spouses.

For Bun Hashizume, it took some forty years for her to be able to talk and write openly about her experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It was a trip to nuclear-free New Zealand in 1993 as part of a senior’s programme to learn English which became a catalyst for her on this journey. While in Christchurch, Bun met some peace activists including Disarmament and Security Centre co-founders Dr Kate Dewes and Cdr Robert Green, and also renowned writer and peace researcher Elsie Locke. These people encouraged Bun to writer her story and share it with the world. Bun eventually compiled various essays and poems of her experience of the bombing and its aftermath into the 2019 book titled ‘The Day the Sun Fell’, edited and translated by her good friend and academic Dr Susan Bouterey of the University of Canterbury. Bun describes in the book:

‘I had nothing but admiration for New Zealand from the beginning. I travelled with a backpack and met a strong sentiment among ordinary New Zealanders against nuclear weapons. It touched me greatly.’

Bun travelled to New Zealand over twenty times throughout the years, calling it her ‘second home’. Kate often accompanied Bun when she spoke to school and university students, attended Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorations, and met other peace activists.

Elsie Locke, Peter Low, and Bun Hashizume at the Hiroshima Nagasaki Day commemorations in Christchurch's Cathedral Sq. 1993.

In May 2021, I facilitated a virtual rekindling of the relationship between Bun and Kate as part of my PhD fieldwork (watch a sample of the reunion here). Communication between the two had only consisted of sporadic email exchanges via translators in recent years. It had been eight years since Bun's last trip to New Zealand and twenty-eight years since her first meeting with Kate and Rob in Christchurch. Just before the call, Kate told me that in January 1993, when Bun first visited her house, they stood in the very same room where the reunion was about to take place. This was also where Bun first met Kate’s 14-year-old daughter, as well as Rob who told her he had once operated nuclear weapons but was now campaigning against them. As Bun writes in her book:

The two hugged me, tearfully. Once again, I felt a strong sense of what it meant to be a survivor of the atomic blast, and was reminded that it didn’t matter whether I could speak the same language, my mere presence was enough to convey the anti-nuclear message.

The significance of the hibakusha lies in their ability to provide first-hand accounts of the indiscriminate nature of a nuclear attack. This can also be conveyed without the need for verbal communication. Bun described that simply being around other people is impactful in its own way. Through the reunion with Kate and Rob, I observed the importance of New Zealand’s nuclear free identity to Bun, which has continued to inspire her in her later years. As she explained to me following her birthday in January 2023:

I am now 92 years old. I never thought I would live this long. I am sure that Kate, Rob, and many other New Zealand peacemakers have sustained me and kept me alive. For that reason, I must keep living life to the fullest. I vividly remember the days I spent in New Zealand. The memories are endless. [author’s translation]

In November 2023, I was lucky enough to travel to Japan and finally meet Bun in person at her home in the ancient coastal capital of Kamakura, south of Tokyo. While there I also met Bun's youngest son, Kōsuke, who told me he first knew that he himself was a ‘nisei hibakusha’ or ‘second generation hibakusha’ from the age of five. He said that whenever Bun’s extended family gathered, most of them hibakusha, the conversation would inevitably fall to the memories of the bombing and its aftermath. It was through these conversations that they were all able to piece together who was where on that day, and what happened to them. For many years, however, these stories remained largely locked within the family and seldom shared with others.

Marcus Coll with Bun Hashizume and family in Kamakura, Japan.

During my stay, Bun talked to me about the current wars in Ukraine and Gaza, expressing her deep disappointment in powerful leaders who opt for conflict over peace, and use nuclear weapons to threaten populations. Since the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has made several threats to use nuclear weapons in that country, and since Israel's war on Gaza an Israeli government minister has twice suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on the Strip, and a US Congressman has stated that Gaza 'should be like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Get it over quick.' This kind of thinking is devoid of all morality and care for human life, deeming the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use as mere ‘collateral damage’ for a perceived greater goal. It is because of survivors like Bun that politicians and citizens must do everything in their power to ensure no one ever again endures what she did. Bun told me that each individual act for peace counts and contributes to the movement of millions around the world standing up against nuclear weapons in their own way.

When I got to the train station to head back to Tokyo, I prepared to say goodbye to Bun. She hugged me so tightly for over a minute, and told me that these were all the hugs for all the New Zealand peacemakers and anti-nuclear campaigners she had met during her travels. I’ll never forget walking up the steps to the station and looking back to see Bun with both arms stretched above her head waving as hard as she could to see me off. I felt so privileged and honoured to have met her. The experience also gave me a huge sense of pride in the impact our small nuclear-free country in the South Pacific has had on this brave survivor, and I'm sure many others.

As we approach 79 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, join us on at 11am on Sunday August 11th at the World Peace Bell in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. There will be music, speakers, candles, and peace offerings to commemorate the victims and to say 'Never Again!'

Our Peace Story mini-series is written and produced by Dr Marcus Coll. Stay tuned for more interesting videos of Aotearoa's strong anti-nuclear heritage. Made possible with support from the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust and the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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