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Beyond Japan: Descendants of Atomic Bomb Survivors Convene in Hiroshima

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 A participant in the Global Hibakusha Project Workshop watches an example of oral history produced by the Project founder about a previous member. Photo By Ari Beser

Hiroshima, Japan—“There was a film about Nagasaki called The Last Atomic Bomb, but in actuality over 2,000 nuclear weapons have been detonated since then,” reveals Bo Jacobs, associate professor at Hiroshima Peace Institute and co-founder of the Global Hibakusha Project.

“Millions of people have been exposed to nuclear weapons, and they may not even realize it.” (Also see “The Story About Hiroshima and Nagasaki You’ve Never Heard.”)

Bo and his partner, associate professor Mick Broderick of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, were in Hiroshima and have completed their second seminar for third-generation hibakusha, the Japanese word for people exposed to the atomic bomb. The first was held in the Marshall Islands in 2014, the location where the United States carried out over a hundred atomic atmospheric and underwater tests between 1946 and 1962.

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Mick Broderick and Bo Jacobs at the edge of the town of Kurchatov, the former secret Soviet atomic city in Kazakhstan. Photograph © Global Hibakusha Project

The objective of their project is to facilitate a better understanding of hibakusha histories within and between communities worldwide. They aim teach the descendants of atomic bomb survivors an ethical way of capturing oral histories of their communities with the art of digital storytelling. 

Part of the project involves giving participants iPads with simple editing software so they can learn how to take interviews and edit them together into shareable videos for social media.

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Participants from Japan and Australia gather during a three-day seminar. Photo by Ari Beser

Attending the seminar were four Japanese descendants of atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Andrea Windlass and Lorraine Garay, members of the native Anangu community in Yalata, Australia (map). Participation in the seminar means that you are desecnded from someone who survived a nuclear bomb, or was exposed to the radiation of one of the thousands of bombs that have been tested.

Garay and Windlass’s people were resettled from their ancestral lands in Maralinga to the community that became Yalata, before the British government tested atomic weapons there. In Australia, they said, many do not know about their own national history of atomic weapon tests. (See “Pictures: Nagasaki and Hiroshima Survivors Share Their Stories.”)

“I was getting my hair cut in Adelaide before coming here and I told my hairdresser about what why we were going to Japan,” says Garay. “But even she didn’t know that there was atomic bombs detonated in Australia.”

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The British test site on the former Anangu land. The United Kingdom tested 12 nuclear weapons in Australia from 1952 to 1957. Photograph © Mick Broderick/Global Hibakusha Project

For Australia’s first people, documenting oral history can be a difficult task: It’s traditionally not allowed to utter the name of a deceased person without expressed permission. However members of Andrea and Lorraine’s community came together to write the book Maralinga: The Anangu Story.

Their book tells the story of how “whitefellas” gradually colonized Aboriginal land, culminating with the expulsion of indigenous people for nuclear tests. However some Anangu avoided contact with whitefellas and never left their lands—and were thus exposed to the testings, including the grandparents and great parents of Andrea and Lorraine.DSC_0005

Garay (left) and Windlass (right) hold the book that tells the story of their tribe, the Anangu. Photo By Ari Beser

The book describes the effect of the testing on Anangu camps:

“At Wallatinna to the northeast, the property nearest Emu and lying in the centre of the fallout path, a black mist with a metallic smell enveloped camp sites. It was unlike anything Anangu had ever experienced. It caused stomach pains, vomiting, choking, coughing, diarrhea, rashes, peeling skin, headaches, and sore and running eyes. Within days, old and frail members of the group had died. Over the next year, almost 20 people camping in the region also died. The number may have been considerably higher, according to Dr. Trevor cutter who worked for the Central Aboriginal Congress Alice Springs health service, but no official records were kept.”

The project carries a significant weight as I come to terms with my own family history. My grandfather, Jacob Beser, was also exposed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the planes. He passed away in 1992 from bone cancer. My grandmother receives widow’s compensation from the U.S. government. I told this to a Japanese reporter in 2011, and he remarked, “Oh, so he was a hibakusha too.”

I felt uneasy about grouping him in with the people who survived the mission he helped carry out, but by definition that reporter was correct. In that regard, I am a third-generation hibakusha.

Ari M. Beser  is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.