What’s the Connection Between Hiroshima and Harlem?

June 1, 2020 | 9:25 am
Matsubara Miyoko, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

On June 6, 1964 the American civil-rights activist Yuri Kochiyama hosted a group of Japanese hibakusha in her Harlem apartment. The survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were on a 150-city World Peace Study Mission to share their experience of the bomb. Miyoko Matsubara was among them. She was 12 when “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima. She described what happened when she regained consciousness after the blast.

I realized that my face, hands, and legs had been burned, and were swollen with the skin peeled off and hanging down in shreds. I was bleeding and some areas had turned yellow….

I was feeling unbearably hot, so I went down to the river. There were a lot of people in the water crying and shouting for help. Countless dead bodies were being carried away by the water – some floating, some sinking. Some bodies had been badly hurt, and their intestines were exposed. It was a horrible sight, yet I had to jump in the water to save myself from heat I felt all over.

As I was watching the horrible scene, someone called my name, “Miyoko, aren’t you Miyoko?” But I couldn’t make out who was speaking to me. She said, “I am Michiko.” Her burns were so severe they had reduced her facial features – eyes, mouth and chin – to a pulp….

“I cannot run any further,” said Michiko. Yet she pleaded with me with her eyes to take her with me. I could not even give her a drop of water. We had to separate.

Michiko walked alone to the temple property on the hillside about a half mile away. She was dead when her parents found her three days later. I always thought that if I had been able to help her a little more to reach the rescue center, she might have lived. My heart still aches.

Sixteen hours later, President Truman told the American people, “What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.”

Secretary of War Henry Stimson promised “improvements” that would greatly increase the “effectiveness” of the bomb. There is no current comprehensive estimate, but since Hiroshima the US government has spent close to $7 trillion continually “improving“ its nuclear arsenal.

Making connections

Malcolm X spoke with the hibakusha about the relationship between domestic oppression and international conflict. Kenmitsu Iwanaga, a reporter for a Hiroshima newspaper, described the talk and the World Peace Mission’s experience in Harlem as a “jumble”of connections between peace and racism.

Prominent African Americans were early critics of the bomb and among the first to question whether Truman’s decision to use it was influenced more by white supremacism than military necessity. By the summer of 1964 the discussion had broadened to include the problem of poverty when considering the connections between racism and war. When Martin Luther King. Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 he argued, “Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other.”

These connections define the current US administration. President Trump is destroying the social safety net while increasing spending on nuclear weapons. His politics incite division at home and conflict abroad. Hate crimes are on the rise as he leads the country to the precipice of a new Cold War.

King hoped our political leaders would direct public investments in science and technology towards healing social and economic ills rather than preparing for nuclear war.

“Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a “peace race.”

Personal reflections

More than fifty years later, the nuclear weapons states continue to invest trillions of dollars, and the creative potential of untold numbers of scientists and engineers, into an arms race that has locked the world into a constant state of crisis. The transformation King sacrificed his life to achieve seems just as far away today as it was in 1964.

We can take some comfort in the realization we’ve avoided using nuclear weapons again for seventy-five years. The experts running the arms race, as well as some of those who seek to control it, believe that’s a product of carefully maintaining a balance of terror, or what they call “deterrence.” Others, myself included, would argue our awareness of the horrible consequences of nuclear war played a much greater role. The testimony of the hibakusha created and sustained that awareness across the ethnic and national delusions that divide us.

Experiences like the hibakusha’ s visit to Harlem can help us dissolve those delusions and make the shift King described. Miyoko Matsubara put it this way near the end of a lifetime of cross-cultural conversations about the bomb.

Nuclear weapons are manufactured by human beings. War is started by us human beings, too. Peace begins when we share our sufferings with each other. We must all strive to overcome hatred and learn to love one another. The most important task for the people of the world is to cultivate friendship through exchanges involving religion, art, culture, sports, education, and economic assistance…

Gradually coming to like and trust Americans, I realized that had the Japanese possessed the A-bomb, we, too, would have used it. The real enemy, therefore, is not America. It is war and nuclear weapons. Those weapons must be abolished.

You can help by supporting the Hibakusha Appeal.


Image caption: A drawing depicts a final parting between Miyoko Matsubara, the artist, and her friend Michiko, after both were badly burned during the 1945 bombing of Japan.

Note about artwork used in this blog post: The artwork in this blog is the property of the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Permission has been granted by the museum to use this artwork to accompany this blog. Reproduction, downloading, or extracting the image accompanying this blog is strictly forbidden. To request permission to use this artwork, contact the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.