Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hibakusha Exams

Every two years, a team of doctors and scientists travel to the United States to meet and examine hibakusha as part of the ongoing medical care the Japanese government has taken on to treat the survivors. Originally, they were supposed to come in May and June, but due to outbreak of the H1N1 virus, they postponed their visit until September and October.

I have spent the past two weekends at the bi-annual hibakusha exams in Torrance and Honolulu meeting hibakusha and telling them about Project Hbakusha : Hope for Peace. Most of them are happy to hear about the project, but still do not want to talk about their experience, at least not publicly.

One gentleman talked freely about one of the grim tasks he had to do. Because he was young and strong, one of his jobs was to stack wood and cremate the dead because the mortuaries had been destroyed. He said he lost count of the number of bodies he had to burn. Unfortunately, he is unwilling to go on camera to tell his story. Hopefully when I see him in two years, he will have a change of heart. Perhaps he will agree to do it anonymously.

Hibakusha have not only suffered from the loss of loved ones and physical ailments, but they have also suffered from the negative stigma that has been attached to being a hibakusha.

64 years ago, no one knew what really happened. No one knew what an atomic bomb was. No one knew what would happen from their exposure to the radiation. There were many mysterious illnesses and deaths that resulted from the bombing. Red spots appearing on their skin. Hair falling out.

Because of all the unknown mysteries surrounding the bombings, they were looked upon as ‘contaminated’ or ‘damaged goods’. Discriminated against by their own people, many chose not to disclose they were hibakusha. Many retain their silence to this day except amongst themselves where they can find some solace of sharing a common, horrific experience.

Some say they are too shy and don’t want to go on camera. Others say they don’t remember much. While others say it is still too painful. Unfortunately, there are many stories that will never be heard.

But there are a few brave survivors who are willing to talk about their experiences and these are the stories that I will be documenting. Their stories are important because if they don’t tell them, then people will never know what really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know I have only heard snippets of what they experienced, but the more I hear, the more I feel these stories need to be recorded for future generations to fully understand the pain and suffering that nuclear war has on people’s lives.

The next two weekends, I will be attending the exams in Seattle and San Francisco talking to more hibakusha and learning more about their experiences. There will no doubt be more heartbreaking stories, but at the same time, I feel the hibakusha themselves are a story of triumph. Triumph over tragedy.

They have endured so much pain and suffering and have overcome many challenges. Challenges that I can not imagine. Many have families and have proven that they are not ‘damaged goods’. Some came with their sons and daughters, who are also being cared for by the Japanese government. They are leading fulfilling lives despite their tragic past.

So I continue on this journey to tell their stories. I no longer consider this as ‘my’ project. This is ‘their’ project. I am merely the messenger passing on their stories for others to hear.