Fri, May 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Hiroshima survivor fears lessons being forgotten


After 18 years of almost daily lectures about surviving the atomic bomb dropped here on Aug. 6, 1945, Setsuko Iwamoto's stories to classrooms full of students have a finely limned quality about them, as smooth as pebbles in a creek.

There is no straining for melodrama as the 71-year-old woman recounts how her skin seemed to melt, and pour off of her arms after the flash, or how whatever scraps of cloth people could find were used by people to protect themselves from the black rain that fell afterward.

Stories of survival do not get much more compelling. But Iwamoto worries now, with Japan inching toward rearmament, that the spirit of Hiroshima and the moral power of her story are fading.

Each year, she said, the stares of the students she faces from the podium grow blanker, just as their questions about the atomic bombing grow more stilted, appearing rehearsed rather than heartfelt.

"Just a few years ago, most school teachers had direct memories of the war," said Iwamoto, who said she was diagnosed with cancer last year, but appeared hale. "That's not the case at all anymore, though, and I wonder once this kind of lecture ends, how effectively the experience of war is taught.

"In my day, we had trouble just surviving every day, whereas these days, everyone in Japan is comfortable," Iwamoto added. "Children learn about war through manga (comic book characters) and think it is kind of cool. They have no particular sensation of Japan's defeat."

The profound shock of the Hiroshima bombing, and that of Nagasaki three days later, is widely credited not only with ending World War II, but with creating a strong emotional underpinning to Japan's official creed of non-violence, consecrated in an American-drafted constitution that faces increasingly strident calls for reform.

Fears about Japan becoming increasingly blase about remembering the atomic bombings, though, are not limited to survivors of the blasts, or hibakusha, as they are known here.

Hiroshima's entire image and economy are linked to the horrendous final days of World War II, and city officials say that visits by Japanese travelers here are locked in a serious, long-term decline, broken only by a modest spike since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the US.

Commissions have been formed to reverse the trend. A museum on the grounds of the Peace Park, near ground zero, has been expanded and modernized. In the hope of popularizing visits here, even a manga has been created -- to celebrate the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old who died of blood cancer years after the bombing.

"We are faced with the challenge of conveying this experience to the next generations," said Noriyuki Masuda, associate director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Association. "At some point, we realized that what we had was a crisis involving young people's consciousness. We have been facing a change in attitudes, and a decline of interest in Japan as a nation."

When Iwamoto completed her one-hour presentation to a lecture hall full of sixth graders who had come to Hiroshima on a field trip, five minutes were left for what was billed as a question and answer session.

In lieu of a question, a young girl who appeared to have been chosen for her excellence in study walked nervously to the microphone and read a brief speech in the name of her class. "Why must there be war?" she said flatly, ending her comments with a wish for the lecturer's good health.

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