As in past years, speakers at this year’s peace memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki remembered atomic bomb victims and pledged to work for world peace. One difference this year and last, however, was that the ceremonies took place amidst the coronavirus global pandemic, including a surge in the delta variant that amplified fear and concern this year. Even in a pandemic, individuals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki labor to remind the world that nuclear weapons remain an existential threat to humanity.
Education is a powerful tool for making progress toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. To this end, I am organizing the Critical Issues Forum—a disarmament and nonproliferation education program for high school students in the United States, Russia, and Japan—at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey. By fostering an appreciation for different cultural perspectives on complex international security issues, this program empowers students to grow into individuals who can contribute to international peace, security, disarmament, and other social justice work.
In one Critical Issues Forum online event this year, we invited a hibakusha—atomic bomb survivor—from Nagasaki to “reboot memories” in an effort to promote empathy and understanding. In another event, members of the Youth Champions for Disarmament—a program of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs—shared experiences and ideas for a nuclear-weapon-free world.
Youth from diverse backgrounds bring unique perspectives for shaping an inclusive, collaborative dialogue on global challenges. As the total elimination of nuclear weapons may not be achievable in our lifetime, cross-generational opportunities to learn from courageous hibakushas are essential. Youth also need opportunities to hone critical thinking skills necessary to engage in dialogues aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons. Young people have great potential to act as key change agents.
As the average age of hibakushas is now 84, the need to convey to youth the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use is urgent. Approximately 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 74,000 people in Nagasaki were killed by the atomic bombings, according to the cities’ records. Any nuclear disarmament discourse must include an understanding of what happened under the mushroom clouds in these two cities 76 years ago.
“The basis of peace is for people to understand the pain of others,” said Katsuji Yoshida, a now-deceased hibakusha. Through empathy, people can understand the suffering of atomic bomb survivors and victims. They can also see the inhuman nature of nuclear weapons.
“True goodbyes aren’t being unable to meet again; they are when their existence is forgotten,” said two sixth-grade representatives of the Children’s Peace Assembly at this year’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on August 9. “We cannot forget those who became victims on that day, ever. We cannot allow our tragic past to be repeated. What we want is peace, not just in Japan, but in every country of the world.”
Current public awareness of nuclear threats is awfully low. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they may be used, either accidentally or intentionally. The only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their total elimination, UN Secretary General António Guterres stated in his message to the ceremony.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted humanity’s interdependence. If world citizens want to succeed in tackling multiple existential threats, including nuclear weapons, all citizens, especially youth, must engage. Youth hold potential to accelerate disarmament efforts.
At the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony, held three days after the Hiroshima ceremony, 92-year-old Nobuko Oka read the Commitment to Peace, becoming the oldest atomic bomb survivor to do so. While each individual hibakusha’s voice may be small, she said, their collective powerful cries for nuclear abolition have moved the world. Citing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force in January, she declared that younger generations have now inherited the task of advancing efforts for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Yet she is determined to “reach out to people who have little knowledge of the atomic bombing as well as young people” for as long as she is alive.
In the near future, the voices of hibakushas will sadly no longer be with us. I have been privileged to listen to many atomic bomb survivor testimonials in native Japanese. Their cries bequeath the pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world to the next generation. But the work of preserving their memories and commitment to nuclear-weapon elimination belongs to everyone.
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