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Eiko spoke at Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial | Eiko + Koma
Eiko spoke at Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial
photo by William Johnston

Eiko spoke at Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial

Thinking of Hibakusha
By Eiko Otake
On Aug 6, 2017
New York Buddhist Church

Eiko was invited to perform during the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial held in front of the large sculpture of Shinran which was exposed to the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima and was later brought to New York. The video of her performance is at the right.
Eiko was also invited to give a speech during the service held in the main hall of the Buddhist Church. Below is her speech.


First, I would like to thank Cheryl Ikemiya and minister Rev. Earl Ikeda for inviting me not only to perform, but also to speak today, August 6th, for the Hiroshima / Nagasaki memorial at the New York Buddhist Church. As a person concerned about nuclear matters and the human capacity to destroy ourselves and take others with us, I am grateful for your kind invitation.

This invitation, I think, came from Cheryl‘s years of knowing me as an artist and my meeting with a group of people from this church on March 11 in 2016.  On that date, I produced a 24-hour memorial event titled “After Fukushima,” commemorating the Fukushima nuclear disaster that happened following the great earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. On the fifth anniversary of the disaster, I produced a 24-hour exhibition of the photographs of me dancing in irradiated Fukushima landscapes in the years following the nuclear meltdowns. I asked a group of artists and friends to perform at the beginning of every hour to mark the time and to create a durational event at which we could put our minds together. Several people from this Buddhist Church kindly came to chant and sing at 7 AM. Thank you again to those of you whose voices and minds so beautifully graced the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church as the morning light came through the stained glass. I recognized then both the need for and the importance of creating and carrying out yearly memorials so we can remember, know, and think about the Fukushima disasters. On March 11th of this year I again organized a four-hour event at the Cathedral of St John the Divine. And here today, I am joining you at this memorial, remembering how I, as a young girl in Japan, stood in silence on August 6 and 9 as the televised memorials announced the very time the bombs were dropped at 8:15 am on Hiroshima and at 11:02 am on Nagasaki.


I am a movement-based interdisciplinary artist, dancer and choreographer, who was born and grew up in Japan. I studied the atomic bombings and the literature about them as my graduate work.  At NYU I designed my own master’s degree on the artistic representation of nuclear massive violence and created NYU’s first course on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is still offered there. I was a late student, just turning 50. Now I am 65 and, for the past 12 years, I have been teaching courses that deal with the atomic bombings, massive violence, and nuclear power plants in several colleges and universities. In this process, I became close friends with a Nagasaki atomic bomb survivor and a writer, Kyoko Hayashi, whose work I translated into English and published. I visited Nagasaki to better understand her work. I also visited Hiroshima several times to perform and teach both at the Contemporary Art Museum and at the Atomic Bomb Museum.

I was born in Japan in 1952, the year the American occupation ended. I grew up there and at the age of 20, I left Japan for Europe. I have lived in the U.S. since 1976, working as an artist.

As a Japanese person of my generation, I felt I had been exposed to the stories and knowledge of the violence of the war, human cruelty, and the graveness of nuclear attacks from an early age. Because the U.S. forces, during their seven years of occupation, had rather severely censored the ways Japanese people could learn about the atomic bombings,  it was during my childhood that Japanese people became more fully aware of the realities, the details, and the politics of the atomic bombings. It was also the time a large number of people, in and outside of Japan, participated in the anti-nuclear movement. My generation was the first in Japan to have TV at home as early teenagers, though not as younger children. I remember every July we read another sad war story in our school textbooks. During the summer vacation that followed, there was no way to avoid the many documentaries on TV about air raids and atomic bombings. Throughout my time growing up in Japan, I had felt the bright summer days were stained with the memories of the war casualties.

As a result, I have grown up fiercely against war, militarism, and oppressive power. I spent many days of my youth participating in street demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But it was not until I had lived in this country and experienced 9/11 and its aftermath, namely the U.S. cry of retribution and the waging of war in the Middle East, that I resolved to study the atomic bombings on my own. I thought about how we could live with the memories of the dead. I have questioned myself and my friends, audiences, and students: What do the dead want from us, especially those who were killed in acts of massive violence?


Having lived in the U.S., I have realized that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not only the history of Japan but also that of the U.S. The Manhattan Project that hastily created three atomic bombs by the end of the war employed 130,000 people. It was an incredibly expensive, secret military project with the aim of creating a weapon that could kill massive numbers of people and inflict the grave consequences of radiation upon the survivors and the environment.  As much as I felt, as a Japanese child, that I knew about the atomic bombs, I have learned that many American people have strong and complex feelings about the U.S.’s nuclear bombings. There are still deeply held beliefs that the atomic bomb was absolutely necessary to defeat Japan, even while historians overwhelmingly agree the Japanese had lost the war long before. Many American people do not want to admit that the atomic bombings were a massacre, much in the same way that some Japanese people do not want to admit that the Japanese soldiers committed many violent atrocities during the course of the war.

The nuclear bombs came into existence as a result of a large-scale orchestration by many incredible world-class scientists of many nationalities. They were also the result of the rapid development of technology during the World War that condemned three militaristic, “evil” nations. The atomic bombs were the tools of the “just war” of “just” nations. As we stood in silence praying on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials, I, as a child, doubted if anyone accountable had truly regretted the massacre.  And if there is no regret, how can we know this will not happen again?

I was surprised to find there was never an explicit order to drop the bomb by the U.S. President. It was only after the Nagasaki bombing that Truman issued an order that said no more atomic bombs should be dropped without an order from the president. The atomic bomb was rushed into existence in the fever of the war. This is our regrettable human nature – we humans develop knowledge, produce tools, and almost always use what we’ve created, no matter what the consequences.

It is therefore important to understand the atomic bombings within the history of the violence of war and human relations to military technology. Japan was an aggressor towards many Asian countries and faraway places and it acted violently and unreasonably. The atrocities such as the Nanking massacre (said to have killed somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese people), the Infamous Bataan Death March, and the battles of Okinawa, all killed many thousands of people, both Japanese and allied soldiers as well as the people who lived in the places where Japan occupied and fought. In all of these places, many Japanese soldiers were not only brutal but were excessively death-inclined fighters. That might have made many Americans fear that the war would not end without radical measures.

But speaking more broadly, the use of planes and explosives had already radically changed the ways of war from soldiers fighting soldiers to machines killing civilians. Examples include the Dresden bombing and the air raids on Japanese cities. The firebombing of Tokyo in the evening of March 9-10, 1945 reportedly killed more than 100, 000 people. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said, “probably more persons lost their lives by file at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” These demonstrated how a war utilizing planes changed from precision bombing of military targets to indiscriminate area bombings implicating the civilian populations.

By July 1945, nearly 7000 B-29s had dropped more than 40 thousand tons of bombs onto sixty of Japan’s largest cities. So although the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were significant in their nuclear component, they were only the next step in escalating the massive killings already taking place. It is chilling to remember that, throughout this, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and were spared from previous bombings by the Atomic Bomb Target selection committee in order to leave untouched targets that would better display the power of the nuclear bombs.


On July 16, 1945, at 5:29 am, a successful Atomic bomb test was executed at the Trinity Site in New Mexico while Truman was preparing his negotiations with Stalin in Potsdam. But no one in Hiroshima and Nagasaki knew about this new weapon that would soon end or alter the lives of so many.

Now let us imagine 8:15am on August 6, 1945, as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber “Enola Gay” dropped the first bomb code-named “Little Boy,” onto Hiroshima. Hiroshima had a military base with 43,000 troops that accounted for 12% of the city’s population. The bomb destroyed 90% of the city.  An estimated 80,000 people were killed immediately in Hiroshima. On August 9 at 11:02 am, another B-29 named “Bock’s Car” bombed Nagasaki with a plutonium bomb code-named “Fat Man.” An estimated 40,000 people died in Nagasaki. Within five months, 140,000 people of Hiroshima’s population of 350,000, and 70,000 people of Nagasaki’s population of 270,000 had died.

It should be noted that the atomic bomb casualties included 8,500 of the Nagasaki’s 12,000 Roman Catholics and about 20,000 Koreans in Hiroshima, who had been brought from Japanese occupied Korea as forced laborers.

Everybody beyond junior high school might know about Hiroshima and what happened there. But this is less true of Nagasaki because Nagasaki is the second city, not the first, to have been attacked with a nuclear bomb. However, Nagasaki becomes much more significant when we realize that Nagasaki is the last city to have experienced an atomic bomb. We have to work hard to ensure that this remains true in the future.

Atomic bomb victims are called “Hibakusha,” in Japanese, which literally means the people who were exposed to the bomb. The Hibakushas’ sufferings are not limited to the trauma of the violent experience. The Hibakusha were exposed to high levels of radiation, and once inhaled or absorbed into a human body, radioactive material continues to affect the victims’ bodies by continuing to emit radiation within. Even some people who survived bouts of acute radiation sickness, injuries, and burns from the initial blast and its aftermath have suffered from various illnesses and conditions caused by radiation. If you do not know Hibakusha as family members or friends, please join me here today in imagining them. I believe active and creative imagination is needed to understand the grave nature of the nuclear bombing. But many of us need help in imagining. For me, having a hibakusha friend and learning her experience made a difference.


My friend Kyoko Hayashi is a Nagasaki Atomic Bomb survivor and writer. During a shift of forced labor as a 14-year-old high school student, Hayashi was exposed to the atomic bomb three quarters of a mile from the epicenter. She survived acute radiation sickness and, while battling various health issues and fears, wrote about her and her friends’ experiences of the atomic bombings. One of her books was titled “Human Experience That Has Taken a Very Long Time.”  Hayashi and I became closer as I translated her work “From Trinity to Trinity” and began using her novels and essays in my classrooms. I used to call her to tell how my students were responding to her work.

She died on February 19th this year at the age of 86. I still cannot use the past tense when I talk about her. Every year I would visit her at her home, and we talked for hours by phone.

Early in our friendship, overwhelmed by her stories, I said what many people might say to Atomic Bomb victims, “I can’t even imagine.” She looked at me eye to eye, and said, “Are you that stupid? Do you need to experience the A-bomb and radiation sickness to understand what being a Hibakusha means?”

Since then I have prohibited myself and my students from uttering this phrase, “I can’t even imagine.” Instead, I ask, how can we imagine other people’s experience? How can we make the distance between here and there malleable?

Fifty-four years after the war, Hayashi visited the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert, where the atomic bomb was tested just three weeks before being exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Please imagine this 69-year-old woman standing in New Mexico in 1999, realizing that the first victims of nuclear violence were not the Japanese Hibakusha, but instead were the various lives and the land of New Mexico.

After the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, Hayashi wrote many essays and a novel clearly stating her despair. Imagine how she felt watching the Fukushima nuclear plants explode in 2011 soon after she turned 80. Hayashi lamented to me, “It is as if we, the atomic bomb survivors, did not exist. It is as if the experiences of the atomic bomb survivors have never counted for anything. While so many friends died because of the atomic bombings and suffered from radiation, Japan as a nation never learned anything about radiation. I am heartbroken.” In saying this, Hayashi spoke of the grave dangers of nuclear plants from the perspective of an atomic bomb victim. She connected nuclear weapons and nuclear plants as both being unnecessary human inventions that fundamentally threaten not only human existence but also non-human lives and the environment.

Throughout her life, Hayashi wrote with a visual and detailed articulacy about how the atomic bomb deprived the victims of not only their lives but of their personal deaths. She illustrated how radiation is long lasting and how it shadows the survivors’ everyday lives. And she showed how radiation also contaminates other species, the land, and the sea.

In reading her work closely I learned that the common expression “Japan is the only nation that experienced the nuclear attack” is a lie. Only the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced the atomic bombings, not the whole of Japan. That is why atomic bomb victims had to wait so many years to prove their suffering and receive health care and financial support from Japanese government. This is why, in such a small country constantly hit by earthquakes and tsunamis, the government and corporations built so many nuclear plants.  The Japanese government did not even participate in the diplomatic negotiations for the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty adopted by 122 United Nations members this year. This is upsetting for the atomic bomb victims as well as those of us who chose to remember them and learn from them.

Let me share with you one anecdote. In 2015, I was asked to perform at the opening reception of an exhibition of works by Maruki Toshi and Iri. They are man and wife painters who visited Hiroshima a few days after the atomic bomb and saw the “hell” and decided to draw that hell. Their large-scale paintings have travelled around the world and throughout Japan and have educated many people about the nuclear disaster.

After accepting the invitation, I was troubled. I did not know how to dance with such paintings. While there was no question about the power and commitment of the Marukis as activist artists, I felt the paintings were very graphic and I could not see how I could possibly relate to them in my movement. I confided my dilemma to Hayashi.

She immediately said, “The paintings were drawn with the outer shapes of bodies. However, the bodies I saw on August 9th had no outline or skin. They were not human bodies any more in the ways we could recognize humanness. Perhaps you can think of this while you dance.”  It was an apt but deeply challenging suggestion that I have revisited to prepare my performance today. A human body can lose its outlines but the life continues until its death. This is one of many things I learned from her experience and our friendship.

Hayashi, however, is now dead. I am not a Hibakusha . But my friendship with her is mine and so is my learning from her. This is why I am here today to talk to you. 72 years after the Atomic Bombings, the day we will hear that the last Hibakusha has died is not too far in the future.  For that reason, those of us who have had access to Hibakusha have to now learn how to share our own experiences with others.


This is why I teach. In teaching a course about the atomic bomb and the human experiences of the nuclear attacks, I began understanding at a deeper level the global and historical significance of the atomic bombings.  I feel strongly that the atomic bomb is a subject every youth in the world, especially in the U.S., should learn about, so as to better understand our history and the grave but essential problems of human existence and our current world.

Studying the atomic bombings, however, is deeply depressing, and I sometimes worry how much heartache I am giving to young sensitive souls. But young people know, instinctively, as I knew in my teens, that humans long ago turned a corner. The time when people believed that science and technology could fix our problems has long been over. This is why I teach in a particular way. My teaching strives to be interdisciplinary. Today, you saw me move, are listening to me talk, and later on we will eat together and converse. Similarly, my students and I delve into the darkest matters of humanity but we do that together. We move, watch, read, struggle, converse, write, cry, and create. It is urgently important that we face the truth but also that we learn how to live with that truth while humans last.

One thing I advocate is to re-learn our ability to hesitate. It is crucial. We need to be honest when we sense a danger. We need to hesitate before we use power. We need to hesitate if our lives are becoming too comfortable or our voices are becoming too loud or right, as these surely cause hardships to others and can even escalate to killing.

It is powerful to recognize these notions deeply with others, because only by doing so can we somehow converse honestly and urgently. It is powerful not to look away.  It is powerful to look into people’s eyes and into our own eyes.

A number of my American students have visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Being in either of these two cities is a strong experience that can change our sense of distance between what happened in these two cities and oneself. A body can feel, learn, and make one’s imagination more grounded. I have done the same and that is why I also repeatedly go to irradiated Fukushima.

But even if you are not a traveler, there are other ways to ground our effort to imagine. As Hayashi reminded me, mindful reading or listening is an experience in itself. It is powerful to realize that human willingness and insistence, of both the storytellers and the listeners, indeed change the sense of distance that people feel about tragedies that occurred many years ago in far away places. Even though you did not see the “unbelievable” or the “indescribable,” you can extrapolate from what you have experienced in your learning, and you can think further. Thus, instead of saying “I cannot even imagine,” you can choose to say, “I will not forget this.” I hope this and every August 6th memorial will be remembered this way.


The irony of history is such that after waging many air raids and two nuclear attacks to kill the civilians of Japan, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, the U.S. occupation force drafted a Japanese Constitution that Japanese people have so far chosen to not change a word of in the past 71 years. I want to read what to me is the most important part, Article 9:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

I want to ask all the spirits of those who were killed by war violence, Japanese or not, to help us protect article 9. I believe this is what the dead want us to do. Even though the Japanese military has now existed for decades as a strongly armed defense force, because our Constitution prohibits combat and attacks, Japanese soldiers and weapons have not killed a single human in the 72 years since Japan lost the war. Considering how military scientists and engineers have been able to create ever more powerful nuclear bombs, the people who are against nuclear war should be so bold and creative as to imagine what the world would be like if the U.S. and other nations had the same Peace Clause in their constitutions.

Please join me in praying that this dignified and deeply human desire not to kill continues to guide not only the Japanese, but also all humanity. I also ask the spirits of the Atomic bomb victims to give us strength to abolish all nuclear technology before it kills more, if not all of us.

Thank you for letting me be with you today as we think of the victims of violence and reflect on our human capacity to remember, imagine, and regret.

(Most of the statistics in this speech are quoted from Mark Selden’s “Introduction: The United Stated, Japan and the Atomic Bomb” in Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki edited by Kyoko and Mark Selden.)