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Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe on 70th Anniversary of US Atomic Bombings

Seventy years ago today the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb.

Seventy years ago today, at 8:15 in the morning, the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Destruction from the bomb was massive. Shock waves, radiation and heat rays took the lives of some 140,000 people. Three days later, the US dropped a second atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing another 74,000. President Harry Truman announced the attack on Hiroshima in a nationally televised address on August 6, 1945. Today, as the sun came up in Hiroshima, tens of thousands began to gather in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the world’s first nuclear attack. We are joined by the acclaimed Japanese novelist and winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe, whose books address political and social issues, including nuclear weapons and nuclear power. “If Mr. Obama were to come to the memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, for example, what he could do is come together with the hibakusha, the survivors, and share that moment of silence, and also express considering the issue of nuclear weapons from the perspective of all humanity and how important nuclear abolition is from that perspective – I think, would be the most important thing, and the most important thing that any politician or representative could do at this time,” says Oe, who has also spoken out in defense of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed to amend in order to allow the country to send troops into conflict for the first time since World War II.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Seventy years ago today, at 8:15 in the morning, the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Destruction from the bomb was massive. Shock waves, radiation and heat rays took the lives of some 140,000 people. Three days later, the US dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 74,000 people. President Harry Truman announced the attack on Hiroshima in a nationally televised address August 6, 1945.

PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today, as the sun came up in Hiroshima, tens of thousands began to gather in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the world’s first nuclear attack. At 8:15 a.m., temple bells tolled as the solemn crowd observed a moment of silence.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those gathered for the memorial were the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, as well as survivors known as the hibakusha, or an atomic-bombed person. Their average age now is 80 years old. They listened as Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui called for nuclear weapons to be abolished.

MAYOR KAZUMI MATSUI: [translated] In order for us to live together, we need to end the use of all nuclear weapons – the ultimate in inhumane, pure evil. And the moment to get this done is now.

AMY GOODMAN: This year’s memorial comes just days before the scheduled restart of the first nuclear reactor in southern Japan to go back online since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed some 18,000 people and set off a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has pushed to revive Japan’s nuclear energy program despite major opposition. During his remarks at today’s memorial ceremony, Abe said Japan still had an important mission to promote nuclear disarmament at the U.N. General Assembly and to put it on the agenda for G7 meetings to be held in Hiroshima next year.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: [translated] Japan intends to renew its efforts to bring about a world without nuclear weapons, with the cooperation of both the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear powers. And that resolve translates to us proposing a new draft resolution at the United Nations in the fall on nuclear disarmament.

AMY GOODMAN: The conservative Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has pushed to change Japan’s pacifist constitution to send troops into conflict for the first time since World War II. The new legislation is under debate in Parliament, was raised by Hiroshima bombing survivors who met with Abe today. Yukio Yoshioka, representative of the Hiroshima A-bomb survivors network, spoke.

YUKIO YOSHIOKA: [translated] The erosion of the constitution will change Japan into a nation that will go to war and bring upon us tragedy once more. We should not allow this nation to become one that repeats the mistakes of its past and does not let the souls of the atomic bomb victims rest in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on this 70th anniversary of the US bombing of Japan, we turn to acclaimed Japanese novelist, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe, who has spoken out in defense of Japan’s pacifist constitution. He is now 80 years old and one of Japan’s most respected intellectuals and humanitarians. Among his books, A Personal Matter, The Silent Cry, A Quiet Life, Hiroshima Notes and A Healing Family. They address political and social issues, including nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

When Democracy Now! was in Japan last year, I sat down with him in the Tokyo offices of Iwanami, his publisher. I started by asking Kenzaburo Oe to explain a comment he made about Hiroshima in which he said, quote, “Hiroshima must be engraved in our memories: It’s a catastrophe even more dramatic than natural disasters, because it’s man-made. To repeat it, by showing the same disregard for human life in nuclear power stations, is the worst betrayal of the memory of the victims of Hiroshima.”

KENZABURO OE: [translated] So, when I was a child at the age of 12 was when Japan was involved in the war, and this was of course at the end of the war, when Japan experienced the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, what was a great shock to me, myself, but also my mother, our families, all the people at that time, was of course the atomic bomb. And at that time, this was a greater catastrophe than anything we had ever known. And so, the feeling of having to survive this, go beyond this and renew from this was great.

The people in Hiroshima who were forced to suffer the greatest sacrifice was the tens of thousands of people who were killed in an instant. However, there were, of course, many survivors. Following the end of the war and the bombing, for the five years following this, of course, Japan was under occupation, and so at that time it was not possible for the hibakusha, which is what we call the survivors of the atomic bombs, to create any kind of organization of their own. And five years following the bombings was when they were first able to create their own organization. And at that time, their lone slogan was to never allow this to be repeated, never to allow any more hibakusha to be created.

And so, the thing that I feel the most at this time, as we’re suffering from the disaster in Fukushima, is that we must follow the wishes and the will of the hibakusha, and not betray them. Of course, in the following 50 or more years since the end of the war, we have not created any more hibakusha or survivors of nuclear weapons, as such. Despite this fact, it is now after we are experiencing this nuclear power plant disaster, which was created by us, a self-made, man-made disaster, on such a great scale, this has led to so many new hibakusha, or people surviving this nuclear disaster. We have done what we promised following the war to never allow to be repeated, to never allow to happen again. And so, we, the Japanese people, I believe, have been responsible for the greatest betrayal to ourselves, even, betrayal to the Japanese people, by being responsible for this man-made nuclear power plant disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: You led a protest last year against nuclear power in Japan, yet the government today, the most conservative since World War II, is pushing for more nuclear power plants here in Japan.

KENZABURO OE: [translated] So, three years ago, the day after the disaster, the weeks after the disaster, I believe that all Japanese people were feeling a great regret. And the atmosphere in Japan here was almost the same as following the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of the war. And at that time, because of this atmosphere, the government at the time, which is the Democratic Party of Japan, with the agreement of the Japanese people, pledged to totally get rid of or decommission the more than 50 nuclear power plants here in Japan. However, the situation following the disaster, particularly in Fukushima, where so many people are suffering from this, has not changed at all. And the current atmosphere or attitude of the government now in Japan has totally changed. And the current government, which took over from the DPJ, the Liberal Democratic Party, which had long ruled Japan, the conservative government led by Prime Minister Abe, is not only having a totally different policy, but also it’s completely having no regret and no looking back on the nuclear power plant situation or also even on what happened to Japan, and is instead actually actively pushing this forward. And I’m very fearful now that actually all throughout Japan and through the Japanese people, the atmosphere which is now growing and increasing is a spreading of this Prime Minister Abe’s ideology and worldview.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet he was elected as prime minister.

KENZABURO OE: [translated] Yes, he has won in two elections until now. But, however, now, because he has the majority in both of the houses of the Japanese Parliament, it means he is, in essence, able to do anything, go forward anything. And the first thing he is also trying to do now is to revise the constitution, which was created democratically by the Japanese people following the loss in World War II and Hiroshima and Nagasaki experience.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Article 9 is and the push to have it removed from the constitution.

KENZABURO OE: [translated] And so, first of all, at the time of the war, of course, Japan was an imperial dictatorship under the leadership of the emperor. However, the first thing that’s an important issue within this new constitution that was created after the war was deciding that the emperor would no longer have any political authority. And following this, the next important point in this new constitution was, of course, Article 9 of the constitution. This lays out that the Japanese people will never again wage war and will not accept war as a means to be used for the resolution of international conflicts. And furthering that also, the second important pillar is that Japan will also not maintain any war potential. However, this second pillar is becoming quite ambiguous, as you are maybe aware that Japan also has, of course, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which fulfills the role of an army. And now, under the current Prime Minister Abe administration, Japan is moving toward actively participating in United States wars. And what I am now most fearful about is the unfortunately likely possibility under Prime Minister Abe that this second pillar of Article 9 will be in danger, but not only this, that even the first pillar, that Japan may actually, within the next year or two or three or four years, actually directly participate in war.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the effect of the birth of your son, Hikari, on your family, on your work. He’s in your books – for example, in A Personal Matter. He was born in 1963 with a birth defect, a hole in his skull. Talk about how that influenced your work and your life.

KENZABURO OE: [translated] So when my oldest son was born, he was born with a mental – or disease. And so, at the time of his birth, when we were thinking or I was deciding what name to give him, because of the dark feelings that I was feeling as a young novelist at the time, I was considering giving him a name which would also resemble this darkness. I’m originally from Shikoku, which is an island in Japan that’s covered with deep forest. And when my mother came from Shikoku to our house in Tokyo, and she told me instead to call him Hikari, which in Japanese means “light.” And I have been living with Hikari ever since then.

So, in my book, which was published in the United States, we have this photograph of me with my son Hikari riding on the bicycle. And this child is now 50 years old this year. And I believe in these 50 years that I spent together living with Hikari, living with my child, he’s really taught me or made me realize that innocence is actually at the core of human nature, the core of humanity. And so, my son, this child, although he is not able to speak very much, every now and then sometimes he comes up with very important words, very important things that he shares with us. And I believe this really shows, or it’s very human in really showing the essential nature of human beings. And so, although I myself am perhaps quite a dark novelist, I believe that also my novels show a kind of trust in human beings. And this has come from my son.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when Hikari first spoke?

KENZABURO OE: [translated] So, at the time when my son was born 50 years ago, medicine at the time, although he was born with a large almost sort of a lump formation on his head, the medicine at the time wasn’t able to see whether – nature or the situation of his brain at the time, whether it was actually – they were fearing that perhaps it was coming somewhat out of place, shall we say? After consulting many, many times with the doctors, we took the courage to actually have that opened up to be checked. And so, at the time, they opened up to check, and it seemed that the brain wasn’t in fact coming out of its place, as they had – but to cover that up, they put almost a plastic lid or a plastic cover on part of his head to repair the surgery, and that is how he has been living for the 50 years since then.

For the first 10 years of his life, he never responded at all to anything that we said. However, one day, we started to be able to hear the sounds of the call of a wild bird. And this was actually coming from the television. And this was the first time he actually showed response or attention to a particular sound, and he really followed this. He turned his face to the direction where he could hear the sound coming from. And so, because he was responding to the sound of the wild bird’s call coming from the television, it made me think that the sound which would be the signal which would be most close for him to respond to would be this kind of pitch and the quality of tone of this bird’s voice. And so I went and bought a recording of wild birds’ calls, and we were playing this in our room all day throughout the day. And he eventually learned to remember these bird calls. And so, this record which we bought and were playing all the time had all different kinds of birds’ calls, including nightingales and other kinds. And the way that the record would play, first you would hear the actual call of the bird, and then one second later it would be followed by a female announcer who would be saying the name. So first there would be the bird’s call, and then, following that, this voice coming on and saying, “Dove,” for example. And this went for three hours.

And so, this continued for six months. And we had a summer home in the mountains, where we would go to spend time. Then we went there together with our son. One night, late at night, we could hear the voice or the call of the bird. And so, at that time, our son, who until then had been totally silent, after hearing this voice, he would say the name of the bird. And so, following this, my wife and I opened the windows of our home to wait and hear for the next bird call. And then, in the morning, we heard the same bird calling. And then again, our son said the name of the bird. “Uzura desu.” “Uzura” is the name of the bird. And, of course, becoming morning, all of a sudden we started to be able to hear all different kinds of birds. And then, following this, my son, he would sit there and hear all of the different cries of the birds and repeat the name of each one, whether it was a crow or a dove. That was the biggest surprise in my life until this day.

And so, because he had learned to recognize the names of the voices of the birds and so on, we started to think how he could learn the names of other things. So, for example, we’d be drawing or writing together, and then I would hold the pen and say to him, “This is a pen.” And then he would repeat, saying, “A pen.” And this was the beginning our conversation with my son.

AMY GOODMAN: Acclaimed Japanese novelist, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe, one of Japan’s most respected intellectuals and humanitarians, describing his relationship with his son, whose music we’ll play for break.

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