I have come to realize that the reason I was the only person in my family
to survive the bombing was so that I could live to bear witness to the bombing.
In March of 2011 a strong earthquake reduced some towns in northeastern Japan to rubble. In August 1945 Hiroshima was turned into empty fields by the explosion of an atomic bomb. Thoughts of these two events fill me with a sorrow that words cannot express. From the bottom of my heart I pray for the repose of those who lost their lives in the March earthquake and tsunami and for a quick recovery and the coming of untroubled times.
I was born into the Goto family, the youngest of five sisters. At the time the atomic bomb fell, my next-to-eldest sister had already died of an illness, so there were only four of us. Our home was about half a mile from where the bomb exploded. I was eight years old and in the third grade. At that time, schoolchildren had been evacuated from the city but then had been permitted to return to their homes for the first time in four months. I returned home on August 5. To this day I remember the happy family reunion of that day and the beautiful night sky filled with stars. Nestled between my parents, I fell asleep on Mother's arm, without knowing it would be the last night I would do so.
When I awoke on the morning of August 6, my father had already left for work, and my mother had gone out to help with the demolition of buildings to prevent the spread of fires caused by incendiary bombs. My sixteen-year-old sister was sick and didn't go to work that day, so all four of us sisters were in the house. Around 8:00 a.m. my sixteen-year-old sister was roasting soybeans for us, and I remember my other two sisters getting into an argument about something while we were waiting. Then, at 8:15, there was a blinding flash of light, followed an instant later by a huge boom and a shockwave so strong it felt like my internal organs were jumping out of my body, and I lost consciousness.
When I came to, the four of us were under the house, which had collapsed on us. We all started shouting, "Help, help!" but nobody came. I could see that my clothing was drenched in red, and realizing I had been injured, I began groping around my body. There was a hole in my neck that made a squishing sound when I stuck my finger into it. I could hear fire beginning to crackle, and in desperation I crawled out from under the rubble. I was the only one able to do so. Outside, the light was dim, like evening, and eerie. As I looked around, the scene was like nothing I'd ever seen, like some sort of hell, and my body started shaking in terror. To this day I can't forget the voices of my sisters calling to me, "Get someone to come help us quickly!" There was nothing I could do but call back, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry," and flee from there. The fact that I left my sisters behind and ran away is still extremely painful to me, more than sixty years later. Our parents were never accounted for, and no remains were found. I was alone in the world.
As I was going this way and that, trying to get away, I saw groups of people trudging along like ghosts burned so badly over their entire bodies that the skin was hanging off. The ones who had collapsed and could not move begged me for help, clinging to my legs, and cried out, "Water! Water!" Someone else said, "I'm So-and-So. Please take a message!" None of them had normal faces. I felt frightened and helpless and could do nothing but weep with them.
When night fell, the scene became even more desolate. I believe I spent two or three days wandering about looking for my parents and sleeping outdoors. Following the fleeing people, I finally managed to reach a refugee camp, where my neck wound was treated. There was no anesthesia, so medics sat astride me, holding down my head, hands, and legs as the wound was stitched. People were dying in that camp every day. People without hair and hideously burned were laid out in rows. Right next to me I saw many people die, howling like animals. I was afraid the same thing would happen to me, and it was too terrifying and unbearable to watch.
Later, I left the camp and just happened to come across one of my elementary school teachers, who took care of me for several days. Before I knew it, it was August 15, the day the war ended, and an older half sister (by a different mother), whom I had never met, and her husband came and took me to their home to care for me. Since food was scarce, I tried to refrain from wanting much food in their home, and I felt small. I kept thinking the entire time that my missing parents would be coming for me. Every day, until the last train of the day had arrived, I would think, "Maybe Mother will be on this one," and my loneliness was indescribable. The half sister who took me in was going through a cycle of business failures and piling up debts, so I was sent out as a live-in servant to help work off the debts, and I came close to being sold outright. Those were very hard times for me.
That was the situation when, just before I was to graduate from middle school at the age of fifteen, my half sister arranged for me to marry against my will. Nonetheless, even though my future mother-in-law had told me, "An atomic bomb orphan who came from nobody-knows-where is a poor match," it made a child like me very happy to be able to call someone "Father-in-law" or "Mother-in-law," even though I was treated badly. I showed respect to them and tried to learn all I could from them. However, one way or another, my husband would say things like "Get out!" or "I'm going to divorce you!" He became angry whether I was laughing or crying. After I put up with this for two years, we left his parents and moved into our own place. My husband became increasingly oppressive after that and started to become violent. He would boast to his friends that he had "picked up an atomic bomb orphan," which was very hurtful for me. If I didn't show a smiling face, even though I was crying inside, I would be slapped. He gave me practically no money for our living expenses, so it was very hard to make ends meet.
I first heard about Rissho Kosei-kai when I was twenty-one and my daughter was four and my son two. When I attended services held by Rissho Kosei-kai in a nearby house, I heard that accumulating merit from ancestor appreciation and honoring our parents brings happiness, so I joined. I was tormented by the fact that no remains of my family were ever found after the atomic bombing, so I had a Buddhist home altar installed where I could make offerings to my ancestors. With my feelings of bitter regret and guilt over abandoning my sisters and running away by myself, I felt slightly relieved after expressing my devotion and gratitude to them.
Eventually, however, I visited the Hiroshima Dharma Center less often. My desire to leave my husband grew until, when my daughter was sixteen and my son fourteen, I finally couldn't take it anymore, and I left. I thought I would be killed if my husband caught me, so I went into hiding. I looked for live-in jobs and worked very hard. My friends and many others helped me, and after a tremendous amount of work, I opened a restaurant serving Japanese savory pancakes. I decided to visit the Dharma center once again after meeting some members who came to the restaurant. I started my practice of offering the proceeds of the first sale of the day. I bought a small detached house I had coveted.
While I was receiving religious guidance and putting it into practice, in 1980 arrangements were made for me to be reunited with my children, after living apart from them for ten years. On the day of our reunion, the moment I opened the door of my son's house, my daughter who was also there placed my first grandchild in my arms. My heart was full of gratitude for my children's warm reception.
I remarried after that, but debts stemming from an illness without a known cause that my new husband contracted and from his gambling debts forced us to sell the house that I had worked so hard to buy. Furthermore, I was also diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, which stops the flow of tears and saliva. When I heard it was incurable, I was shocked, to be sure, but I told myself that my true religious practice would start then. I quit working and started going to the Dharma center in earnest. I was assigned the responsibility of area leader, but as my disease progressed, I had to give that up.
At about that time, staff in charge of Rissho Kosei-kai's peace study program at the Dharma center asked me if I would speak in public about my experiences as an atomic bomb victim. That was exactly on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing. Recalling that time brought back a flood of very painful memories, and I could not sleep for days on end. Though it was hard, I was speaking about my experience of the bombing for the first time. Afterward, the day before my memorial service for the fiftieth anniversary of the death of my parents and sisters, for the first time in fifty years I finally met someone who knew what happened to my mother. Although I was very sad to have my fears of her death confirmed, I also felt great joy in feeling her spirit nearby. I thought, "This has happened not because of my efforts but because Mother has been close by me all along since that day, constantly encouraging me." This thought made me very happy. In that fiftieth-anniversary year, it was arranged for me to speak about my experiences five times. I felt as if I were dedicating a memorial service to each of the five persons I lost, and I was moved to feel this had been arranged by the Buddha.
Seventeen years have now passed since I first testified about my atomic bomb experience to a gathering of young people who were visiting Hiroshima from Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma centers all over Japan. For more than ten years, some of the Dharma centers have called on me to speak, for which I am very grateful. It gives me great joy to read elementary school pupils' comments on my talks, such as: "I thought it must have been a hard life for Ms. Hada after exposure to radiation, and even more painful for her to lose her family and be the only one who lived. That is why I will follow what she told us at the end, which was 'Cherish your family and friends.'" All the comments are wonderful, and I am very happy that they listen so well and get the message. When people come to join the peace study program, it is I who am encouraged, and I feel almost overwhelmed with gratitude and inspiration.
In October 2010, Israeli and Palestinian young people came to Hiroshima as part of Rissho Kosei-kai's peace project to foster understanding and reconciliation between them. I was honored to speak to them of my personal experiences as a victim of the bomb. In the middle of my testimony, the interpreter suddenly choked up and began to weep and took a few moments to recover and continue. When my talk ended I was given a standing ovation, which overwhelmed me with emotion.
In November of that year, for the first time, I spoke to a group of elementary school pupils on a field trip about my experience as an atomic bomb victim. I later received a booklet of comments written by all fifty-nine of the children and was pleased to see that they had completely understood what I was trying to convey.
Then, unexpectedly in May 2011, as a result of an introduction by an interpreter for a BBC report about me seven years earlier, I was honored to give a public lecture organized by the Faculty of Social Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto. At the end of the lecture, a female student came up to me and told me that there were troubles in her family but that "when I heard what you had to say, Ms. Hada, I became aware of how important and precious my family is to me. I intend to think positively from now on." This made me very pleased.
The day after I returned from the university, I had a wonderful, blessed dream. I was back in the old days, sitting around with my family. I couldn't see their faces, but I could hear their voices and feel a sweet, very nostalgic atmosphere and sense the family bonds of childhood. I was extremely happy. Until then I had been suffering from the heartless words of my half sister, who had told me, "It would have been better if you had died." She said I was a bad person for leaving my sisters and fleeing. I had thought that I was not meant to be happy, and I lived despondently. Even today, when I'm happy I also get an uneasy feeling, wondering if it's actually all right to feel that way. But the encounter with the people in the peace study program changed my mind in a big way. Whereas I had always thought negatively, now I realize that it is first and foremost essential for my mind to be at peace and that I should live my life cherishing each moment. I believe this is due to the teachings of Rissho Kosei-kai. I have come to realize that the reason I was the only person in my family to survive the bombing was so that I could live to bear witness to the bombing. And I, who was left all alone by the bomb, have been blessed with two children and now have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I am deeply grateful and moved by the fact that I am blessed with the link of life with them.
My granddaughter married a citizen of the United States, the country that dropped the atomic bomb, and she lives in Oklahoma. At one point she sent me an e-mail telling me that my experiences as an atomic bomb victim had been related to members of the Dharma center in Oklahoma. This filled my heart with gratitude. I wish my granddaughter to be a bridge of peace between Japan and America from now on. One of my favorite sayings is "The past is a treasure, the present is full of emotion, and the future is bright." I think this describes me as I am now. In 2009, when President Nichiko Niwano visited the Hiroshima Dharma Center, he said to me, "My heart goes out to you because of the hardships you have experienced." And at that moment, all my troubles and fatigue up to that point melted away, and I felt as if my surroundings had brightened. I will treasure President Niwano's words for the rest of my life.
I am full of gratitude for all the wonderful things around me right now, which I feel are undeserved. I would like to express my appreciation for the many people who have helped me and guided me up to this day. I truly thank you. As I continue to be blessed in meeting more people in the future, I shall live with gratitude day by day. As one witness, I shall try to communicate the preciousness of life and the folly and tragedy of war as long as I live.
Akiyo Hada is a member of the Hiroshima Dharma Center of Rissho Kosei-kai.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.