HIROSHIMA, Japan — Seventy years ago, they struggled to stay alive in the wasteland wrought by the first atomic bomb used in war. On Thursday morning, the hibakusha — survivors of the blast that changed the world — were honored at an annual ceremony in the center of their rebuilt city.
The scent of incense wafted over survivors and dignitaries, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during the ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where water was offered to the souls of the tens of thousands of men, women, children and U.S. prisoners of war who died from the bombing.
Cicadas chirped in the heat as officials laid wreaths and added names to a register of the almost 300,000 Japanese victims at a cenotaph in the park. Some 55,000 people, by official count, prayed in silence. A bell sounded for peace, and dozens of doves were released before a choir sang the Hiroshima Peace Song.
Abe expressed condolences to victims, noting that some still suffer after-effects.
The average age of the remaining survivors is 80, and the government of Japan will continue to assist them, he said.
Abe also vowed that Japan will make a continuous effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and will introduce a resolution to the United Nations this fall calling for the destruction of all nuclear weapons.
“Japan, as the only nation to have experienced nuclear bombs in war, we have a grave responsibility to make continued and steady effort through a realistic and pragmatic approach to realize the world without nuclear weapons,” Abe said. “At the same time, it is our duty to disseminate the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons across the border of nations and generations.”
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui issued a Peace Declaration warning that the threat of nuclear weapons remains real.
“As long as nuclear weapons exist, anyone could become a hibakusha at any time,” the declaration said. “Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation.
“We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism.”
After the ceremony, some of the hibakusha told their stories to visitors.
Keiko Ogura, 77, said her brother was working in a potato field on the outskirts of town and saw a tiny black dot falling from a B-29 just before the nuclear explosion knocked him to the ground. He climbed a hill and saw his city in flames as a mushroom cloud rose skyward.
Ogura, then an 8-year-old schoolgirl, was in the street near her home about a mile and a half from the blast’s epicenter.
“There was a blinding flash, and I couldn’t stand or breathe,” she said. “I was hit by sand and debris and lay unconscious on the ground.”
She regained her senses amid darkness and silence. Then the air cleared, and she saw thatched homes catch fire, burning people to death as their loved ones tried to rescue them.
“People caught fire. Their clothes were burning and they were running,” she said.
The Japanese government classifies Kazuhiko Futagawa, 69, as a hibakusha even though he was born eight months after the bombing. His pregnant mother went into the radioactive ruins of Hiroshima searching for his father and sister, who died in the attack.
Futagawa broke into tears when he held up his sister’s tiny school uniform, which his mother saved.
“When I see my sister’s uniform, I feel pain and regret,” he said.
Later in the day, as dusk settled over Hiroshima, people gathered on the banks of the Ota River near the Aioi Bridge, which was used as an aiming point by the crew of the Enola Gay. On the night of the bombing, the river was clogged with the bodies of the dead, but seven decades later small children laughed as they made colorful paper lanterns to launch from the riverbank.
The nearby Genbaku “A-Bomb” Dome — the only structure left standing near the center of the blast — loomed in the background and a flute piped a mournful tune as the lanterns – inscribed with messages of peace — floated downstream and out of sight.
The Hiroshima survivors said they endured many hardships over the years, including nightmares and discrimination by people who saw them as damaged by radiation.
Those at the Thursday’s ceremonies said they found strength and purpose in their struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Minoru Furuta, 76, was born to Japanese immigrant parents in America, then was sent to live with relatives in Hiroshima in 1941, just before war broke out. He survived the atomic bombing, crawling out of a collapsed house. His finger, almost severed in the blast, still bears a scar from where the Red Cross patched it up and splinted it with a chopstick.
Now living in Tokyo after a career in the U.S. Air Force, Furuta said Wednesday that he hasn’t been back since he was a teenager and blames the Japanese government for what happened. The nation’s leaders should have admitted they were beaten and surrendered months before the atomic bombings, he said.
“The Japanese government should apologize to their own people before saying things to other countries,” he said.
Furuta doesn’t see much point in the U.S. getting rid of nuclear weapons, saying it needs to maintain a balance of power, but supports the idea of educating people about the dangers of nuclear warfare.
“If people aren’t educated about nuclear weapons, they will use them,” he said.