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76 years after Hiroshima, American survivors remind us all wars hit home

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When the B-29 known as “The Enola Gay” flew in the sky over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, people beneath the now-famous bomber were not only Japanese or Koreans. They were also Americans whose fate was about to be drastically changed by the first nuclear attack against civilians in history. 

These Americans included prisoners of war, a dozen of whom perished at the bomb’s explosion. But deaths and casualties also included an estimated few thousand Japanese Americans. Though little-known, I learned there were about 20,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry in Japan when the war broke out in December 1941. Hiroshima had sent the largest number of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland since the late 19th Century. Unsurprisingly, the number of Americans visiting their extended families in Japan — most of whom were the children of the first-generation immigrants — was the largest in Hiroshima.

As I conducted research for my book, “American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” I learned that, to these youngsters, the B-29 seemed like a familiar object from their home country, not an aggressor about to drop a bomb unbeknownst to humans. Especially because there were many reconnaissance aircrafts that came over Hiroshima before Aug. 6, Hiroshimans became accustomed to them. Fourteen-year-old Hayami Fukino from Redondo Beach, Calif., recalled how she had felt excited.  

“They are from America! [They are] part of me, you know. My friend,” she told me. 

Another Japanese American girl, Mary Kazue Suyeishi from Pasadena, Calif., nicknamed the airplanes “angels” because of their silver bodies and the way they looked like they were gracefully “dancing in the blue sky.” She sent a silent greeting “Good morning!” to the Enola Gay out of her admiration. 

When the bomb blasted the city and turned it into an inferno, Americans who survived continued to rely on their Americanness to orient themselves. Twelve-year-old George Kazuto Saiki saw one thing that remained standing, a sewing machine his family had brought back from Hawaii. It was an old-fashioned, sturdy model made in the U.S. by Singer. Although the machine was blown away by about 20 feet from where it had been, it was reassuring to Saiki that it, too, survived the bomb. 

What is striking to me is that these survivors’ ties to America were not based on abstract ideas such as national loyalty and allegiance. Ties remained strong because they were rooted in how these survivors lived their everyday lives, including everyday things like clothes. 

Tae Alison Okuno was able to find her cousin’s body because she was “wearing a piece of American underwear with a distinctive stripe pattern on it.” May Yamaoka’s older sister Mana was found because of the “American slip” she was wearing, silky underwear unknown to most Japanese of the time. Yamaoka felt “lucky” that Mana stood out this way in the nuclear holocaust’s aftermath. Otherwise, her family would not have been able to identify her corpse.

In my mind, these extraordinary stories reflect most ordinary aspects of modern life. People move, make a living, and create ties. These ties do not go away just because nations fight wars against each other or a government comes down on people by demanding that they belong exclusively to a single nation. Surely, globalism is one of the driving forces of the immigration of our times. But it is also nationalism throughout the modern era that has made people move across national borders. 

Many Koreans died in Hiroshima because of Japanese colonization of the peninsula in 1910. These Koreans were in the city as laborers or military conscripts, forced to live and work in most despicable conditions. Many Americans were in the city in part because of American racist policies of exclusion against Asians that reached new highs in the 1920s and 1930s. Defined by law as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” immigrant parents worried about their citizen children’s future. Sending them to Japan for a few years of education was a survival strategy, one that allowed the children to become familiar with ways of their ancestral land. If they are deprived of everything in America, familiarity with Japanese culture would prove essential. In short, Hiroshima was a modern city of a modern era, where immigrants from different national backgrounds cohabited. This was the case in 1945 as much as it is with any of our contemporary cities.   

When we consider the Hiroshima bombing, we often think of its morality and legitimacy in terms of either the United States or Japan. Was it morally acceptable for America to drop the bomb? Was Japan a legitimate target of the first nuclear attack? Should America or Japan have taken a different course of actions?  

Japanese Americans survivors’ experiences in the city of immigrants challenge these dualistic ways of thinking. Their experiences remind us of how impossible it is to cleanly isolate enemy nationals, then methodically, kill them only. In any modern city, the casualties will inevitably include people from a range of different places. They will include, quite literally, one of us. 

This is not a tenable way to live. If we are to survive Hiroshima, it is important but not enough to plead for world peace or nuclear free-world. Our remembering of the city needs a more thorough consideration of history made from the most ordinary, everyday texture of modern life.    

Naoko Wake is associate professor of History at Michigan State University and the author of “American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Tags Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Enola Gay Hiroshima Nagasaki World War II

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