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November 22, 2014

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Hiroshima survivor makes peace with America

Art exhibit at Atomic Testing Museum stresses forgiveness

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Tiffany Brown

Many of artist Takashi Tanemori’s works will be displayed this week at the “Bridge to Forgiveness” exhibition at the Atomic Testing Museum. Tanemori survived the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Takashi Tanemori is coming to Las Vegas this week to talk about the day that everything went quiet.

The 8-year-old was playing hide and seek with his classmates. He was near a window, counting to 10, and could hear the footsteps of Japanese soldiers and the buzzing of cicadas.

The day was Aug. 6, 1945. Little Boy was falling from the sky.

“That very moment, the flash came. It was pure white,” he says. “I covered my eyes, but saw the bones of my fingers, just like you see an X-ray. The stillness, the deafening sound. I wondered what happened.

“It was as if the sound of the universe was taken.”

Then came rumbling, a loud bang and the collapse of his three-story school building. Buried in the dark under the rubble, Tanemori couldn’t see his own hand. The air was thick with dust. His throat was scratchy. Heat burned through his body. His classmates screamed as the building caught fire.

Tanemori, who was less than a mile from ground zero, survived the bombing of Hiroshima. His mother and a sister were never found; another sister died. His father died of radiation sickness a month after the blast.

“The night before he died, he taught me the seven codes of the samurai and said, ‘Promise me that you will teach your children that which I taught you. Promise yourself and promise to me that you will live your life as I lived before you. Live for the benefit of others, then we all benefit. This is the simplest way to make a peaceful world.’ ”

But peace would be far from his reality. Tanemori spent the next 40 years angry, bitter and vengeful.

Now 70 and a U.S. citizen, he lives in a studio apartment in Berkeley, Calif. He is nearly blind and lost his stomach to cancer. But he’s found that peace.

“After 63 years, I am free,” he says by telephone. “I have learned to forgive, to let it go.”

Tanemori will speak at the Atomic Testing Museum on Wednesday, the 63rd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and again on Saturday, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. The lectures accompany an exhibit of Tanemori’s journey detailed in his book, “Hiroshima: Bridge to Forgiveness.” His mixed-media work, on display through Sept. 7, includes “We Have the Target,” which combines portraits of Emperor Hirohito and President Truman, Japanese and American flags, an aerial map of Hiroshima and a small Japanese boy looking at ground zero.

It’s not unusual for an exhibit like this to be at the Atomic Testing Museum. Two years ago the museum hosted an exhibit brought by the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall and tries to schedule an event each August to remember the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

The Japan America Society of Nevada, which supports the museum’s mission, helped sponsor the exhibit. Japanese tourists are common visitors, though Fat Man and Little Boy earrings are sold in the museum gift shop and former Test Site employees work as docents.

The purpose of the museum isn’t to glorify the use of atomic weapons, says museum director Ray Shubinski. “The fact is, the world in the 1940s was in a race and someone was going to use it first. It’s a sad fact in history that we had to drop the bomb. Twice.”

Tanemori cries when he talks about the soldier who dug him out from the rubble of the school, the families looking for survivors, the woman carrying a headless baby on her back and the train full of dead bodies that he rode to a nearby village for safety. He cries when he talks about the four decades of hating Americans.

As Americans were celebrating the end of the war, politicians were debating whether dropping the bomb was the right thing to do and Robert Oppenheimer was grieving his accomplishments, Tanemori was a “hibakusha,” a victim of Hiroshima. He lived with his siblings in a village, the only family without parents. They were discriminated against for fear of contamination. Two of his sisters who had been evacuated before the bombing, and a brother, survived the blast.

Hurt, angry, ashamed and stubborn, Tanemori fought with his sisters and sought food where he could, often walking down to the railroad tracks hoping to find unfinished candy or fruit tossed out the window by train passengers.

“I was at the bottom of the bottom,” he says. “I tried to take my life; that too failed. I couldn’t even die.

“My decision then was that America dropped the bomb, confiscated my youth and destroyed my family. I’m going to get even with America. I want to see all the parents die like my parents died. All the children to suffer. I spent the next two years trying to figure out how to get to America.”

He arrived in the United States in 1956, lived in a migrant labor camp where he got food poisoning and wound up in the hospital being tested for everything else, including radiation poisoning, because he spoke only Japanese.

His reaction to a spinal tap landed him in a psychiatric hospital, where he spent six months locked up, undergoing electroshock therapy and being treated like a “crazy monkey.”

During his six-month stay, an American nurse reached out to him and became his guardian. Her Baptist faith inspired him to join the ministry. But that path, too, was bumpy. Tanemori still hated Americans.

Through marriage, fatherhood (he has three children), divorce and many jobs, he planned revenge. His wife told him that he was living in the past, he says, and that he was using Hiroshima to “salvage his failures” at the ministry and at other careers. He was torn between two masters: his spiritual master and the master whose death he promised to avenge. “Daddy was the sun. I was the Earth. I circled him. The world took the greatest gift from me.”

On Aug. 5, 1985, while driving across the Bay Bridge on his way to speak at a remembrance rally, he heard the voice of his 11-year-old daughter telling him, “Daddy, I know what you’re trying to do, but you can’t kill all the American grown-ups. Your children are going to suffer. Their children are going to suffer. Daddy, is that what you want?”

“That was the day my epiphany took place,” he says. “It was the darkness in my own heart, of getting my own revenge.”

Instead of giving a hateful speech that day, he says, he asked forgiveness of his own heart, and 10 days later his father appeared as a spirit. “He said, ‘Takashi, my son. You have found the greatest way to avenge your enemy, by forgiveness.’

“In many ways I am not a model father, but one thing I have learned over these decades is that the greatest way to show love is setting yourself free by forgiving. Forgive yourself first, then forgive others. It is not them, the ones who have hurt you, it is you who needs to set yourself free. The weight is going to take you down. The greatest way to set yourself free is to let go of the painful past. I learned how to balance the contradictions. I was able to accept darkness and light, war and peace, love and hate.

“I cry. I also laugh.”

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