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In Japan, young people rush to document Hiroshima survivors’ memories

It has been 75 years since the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, leveling the city and killing some 150,000 people. The horrifying aftermath of that attack, and one on Nagasaki three days later, has been described to the generations since -- now with special urgency as the population of survivors dwindles. Special correspondent Grace Lee reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we mentioned earlier, today marks 75 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Another blast hit Nagasaki three days later.

    More than 200,000 Japanese died in the two attacks. The horrifying aftermath has been told and retold by survivors through the years.

    The youngest of them are today in their late 70s and 80s. Now a younger generation is trying to ensure those memories are not lost.

    Special correspondent Grace Lee in Hiroshima has the story.

  • Grace Lee:

    In a room full of his peers, 17 year-old Niho Ishibashi asks an important question.

  • Niho Ishibashi:

    How will young people learn the truth about Hiroshima now?

  • Grace Lee:

    He learned about the horror from his great uncle, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing who lost his eyesight due to the blast.

  • Niho Ishibashi:

    When August 6 is coming, I often go to his house and hear testimony, yes.

  • Grace Lee:

    Now Ishibashi is sharing that testimony with his high school peace studies class. It's a regular part of the curriculum for many schools in Hiroshima, different from the rest of Japan.

    Takeda High School's program was developed by vice principal Muneo Hotta.

  • Muneo Hotta:

    My father was a bomb victim. So I'm second generation of Hibakusha.

  • Grace Lee:

    Hibakusha is the Japanese word for survivors of the atomic bombings. With their numbers dwindling, the race against time to preserve their memories has been a rallying cry for young people in Hiroshima.

  • Shunta Yamanque:

    I would like to do something that I can keep Hibakusha stories in the future.

  • Grace Lee:

    Some have found unique ways to do just that.

    At Fukuyama Technical High School's computer club, students are working with virtual reality, under the watchful eye of their teacher, Katsushi Hasegawa. They let me experience their project firsthand. With a headset and some earphones, I'm transported to Hiroshima in 1945 before the city is bombed.

  • Katsushi Hasegawa (through translator):

    We want people to know what happens when nuclear weapons are used. People tend to think about using it to attack others, but nobody thinks about what it's like to have the bomb explode right above your head.

  • Grace Lee:

    Students here understand that message, especially when they're able to stand right on top of ground zero.

  • Yuito Kakihara (through translator):

    There's a park there now, but the site of the bombing used to be a town called Nagashima Honmachi.

    I hope that, by knowing that town existed and seeing it there through V.R., people will be able to feel the reality of the atomic bombing.

  • Sena Hirakawa (through translator):

    It's awful to see that a place so beautiful could be turned into a pile of rubble like that. When you watch the moment of the bombing in the V.R. program, it happens in a second. There's a blinding light, and everything is destroyed.

  • Grace Lee:

    The students aim show their project to as many survivors as possible, in hopes of creating a more accurate version of a pre-bombing Hiroshima.

    Education about the bombings starts as early as elementary school in Hiroshima. This elementary school tells a story on its own. Located about a third-of-a-mile away from the bombings epicenter, the school's west wing was the only structure left standing after August 6, 1945.

    It was used as a relief station for survivors. This part of the school is now a museum. Several of its walls served as message boards for victims trying to reach loved ones.

  • Yachiyo Harada (through translator):

    This is a note from one teacher to another, saying that a badly burnt student undergoing treatment has become orphaned.

  • Grace Lee:

    Students here make paper cranes every year for the museum. They were seen as symbols of hope after the bombing.

  • Yachiyo Harada (through translator):

    Students know about what happened here. They learn about it in peace studies. The fifth and sixth graders are even trained to be guides for foreign visitors.

  • Grace Lee:

    Hiroshima Archive is another massive feat by local students. It relied on student volunteers to gather messages from A-bomb survivors and put them onto a digital archive.

    So, the app shows you where survivors were at the moment of impact. So, if you take a look here, you can see we're standing right where this survivor, Michiko Takano, was on that day. And if you click their names, you can see their testimony. This is hers.

    "At that moment, there was a flash, as if someone had lit a huge amount of magnesium on fire. And the house was blasted to pieces. For a moment I thought, our house was hit directly with an incendiary bomb. But when I looked around, the whole city was destroyed, and I saw people covered in gray ash standing in a daze on street corners. It was like seeing a scene from hell."

    This year, ceremonies marking the anniversary of the bombings have been scaled back due to COVID-19. And for survivors like Setsuko Thurlow, the pandemic has been a difficult time.

  • Setsuko Thurlow (through translator):

    You know, when I saw a pile of dead bodies of the COVID-19 victims, that reminded me of what I experienced in Hiroshima 75 years ago.

  • Grace Lee:

    She still remembers vividly what it was like when the bomb hit her hometown.

  • Setsuko Thurlow:

    Although it happened in the morning, it was dark like twilight. And as my eyes got used to the situation, I started seeing some moving dark objects nearing me.

    And that was the procession of injured people. Their — parts of their bodies were missing. The hair was all burnt and standing up. And the skin and flesh were hanging down off the bones. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened, and swollen.

  • Grace Lee:

    Thurlow is an activist and a leading figure for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Her advice to young people: Reach out to local politicians.

  • Setsuko Thurlow:

    Get in touch with them. Let them know how you feel. I think you deserve the decent future waiting for you. Your lives are just starting. You deserve better.

  • Grace Lee:

    Her message is well-received in Hiroshima, where the next generation has already been planting their seed.

  • Mueni Hotta:

    Hibakusha is passing away a lot year by year. So, we should keep this memory, this idea for a long time.

  • Grace Lee:

    And the generation after that is well on their way.

  • Niho Ishibashi:

    I'd like to spread any countries what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • Grace Lee:

    On August 6, 1945, 150,000 lives were lost in Hiroshima.

    Three days later, another 75,000 people were killed in Nagasaki; 75 years have passed, but their deaths are still fresh on the minds for many here every summer. And every year, new voices are speaking up on their behalf.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Grace Lee in Hiroshima.

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