On Thursday afternoon, April 18, Vassar students and faculty members gathered in Rocky 200 to converse with Hiroshima survivor and Vassar Japanese Department founder Professor Tomiko Morimoto West and Cannon Hersey ’99. In the words of Chair of Chinese Department Peipei Qiu, “[The conversation] was a call for actions among students to find leadership in yourself,” and will be recorded as a landmark occasion for students and educators in Vassar for generations to come.
Hersey opened the conversation with a recount of Hiroshima’s influence on his life and work. After detailing his encounters with survivors, he described how his experience left an imprint of unexpected “hope and resilience in the shadow of Hiroshima.” Hersey especially expressed his gratitude to hear the story of Koko Kondo, the only living survivor who appeared in his grandfather John Hersey’s 1946 book Hiroshima. Kondo met with the pilot who had conducted the 1945 bombing mission on Hiroshima that occurred when she was just six years old. “She had always thought she would want to bite him, to hate him or to hurt him for all the traumas he had caused her people. But as a seven-year-old on a national television show, she saw him visibly in pain and instead of doing what she thought she would do, she went towards him and held his hands,” Hersey recounted. A willingness to look at history from a personal perspective and to understand the lives of witnesses permeated the conversation. This was the same in-depth insight that John Hersey hoped Hiroshima would encourage.
The talk then shifted to West’s life story, a non-linear yet enlightening view of an individual’s existence and relationships with those around her. Laying out the underlying spirit of an otherwise dark and traumatic past conflict, West shared: “I am not some great survivor. My life is very good now, and I’d appreciate more of what I have right now, especially after going through what I had to go through when I was a child.” West took her listeners back to the fateful Hiroshima attack through to her last day in Japan and later departure to the U.S.
The attack, according to West, left an inexplicable impact on both her hometown and her perspective of herself and life. She recalled, “I fled the bomb that day. Unfortunately, I had an argument with my mother. How would I have known it was going to be the last day I saw my mother?” West added, “So I always say, when you leave home, leave with love and hugs, and treat your family like it is the last day you’ll see that person.” After the attack, victims’ bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave.
After the bombing, West gained a new understanding of peace, of the state of mind that allows her to remain optimistic. She explained, “I saw a newspaper that said, ‘no grass will ever grow in Hiroshima,’ but a couple of weeks later, I saw grass growing. There was hope.”
Listeners also learned about West’s school experience, as life and death, absence of the fallen and appreciation of the remaining were mixed together. She described, “Schooling did not resume right away. For a while we had no paper, no book to write on. Every time I looked at the pen, I appreciated that I had a friend who was still alive in my school.” West’s narrative was punctuated by a mixture of factual remembrances and hopeful reflections.
At the same time, West sent a concrete message that the destruction of an atomic bomb could, and did, change her conception of everyday life forever: “I had an argument with my mom. I went to the school assembly…and saw the US B29 flying.” West recalled thinking nothing of this, as U.S. planes often flew over to photograph the area. “And then suddenly we saw a blast. We all fell down to the ground, shut our eyes, opened our mouths—that was how we were taught. Then we all ran, I ran to the mountains and stayed there for three days.”
West was then found and returned to a residential area, where three months later she learned of her grandparents’ deaths. West was 13 at the time. After five years living with her aunt and five children, West worked as a housemaid to improve her English skills. She landed in the United States in 1952, first working as a telephone operator thanks to her command of the English language.
West still remembers how, arriving in the Midwest, she would encounter questions such as, “Are there radios in Japan?” Yet, being able to find home in the people that she met and knew, West finally finished her higher education at the University of Wisconsin.
The stance she shared with Hersey on the current tensions in international military climate, notably the fact that the world is spending $2.1 trillion on war, was firm. When asked about the current presence of robust nuclear postures or technology to develop nuclear weapons, however, West was adamant and concise: “Of course I’m against it.” Her simple answer, though it brought slight laughter to the auditorium, pointed to a firm opposition to war and a sense of steadfastness to peace-bound diplomacy.
West’s humor persisted throughout, from explaining her process of learning English, her working life in Japan and the United States, and her eventual arrival at Vassar. “I knew a German teacher here. Vassar was developing critical language programs, and I got a job teaching Japanese.”
When asked if other survivors are as forgiving as she is, West discussed the story of her cousin, who suffered burns on half of his body. “He had difficulty finding a wife later in life. He was not as forgiving as I was,” she explained. This was one of many ways Hiroshima significantly altered lives. Hersey then added, “Of the survivors, only one percent could and decided to talk about their experience. The trauma was too tremendous for many.” However, West still believed that difficult conversations are healthy.
West’s capacity for forgiveness also carried her through the alienation and discrimination she experienced during her early days in the United States. She placed her own experiences into a broader perspective: “I knew a man who wrote three thousand and three hundred pages in Japanese about Hiroshima. He was the same age as I am. He passed away three years ago. As I read those pages, it occurred to me that I’m getting old, [that] I might not be around all the time. I do whatever it takes to help to bring peace to this world … I think we all need to work together, for world peace. Yes, it is possible.”
The conversation also extended from understanding the attack to education on international politics and human rights in the current moment. West requested educator and community involvement in including nuclear attacks and survivor stories in today’s curriculum. Hersey contributed to the conversation by narrating his experience interacting with and preserving personal survivor stories, reflecting upon the effect that “Hiroshima,” with its six survival stories, has had on students and teachers alike.
Regarding the impacts of a more personal approach to learning about history and politics, attendee Annabelle Su ’21 shared, “Story-telling did exist prior to this personal narrative approach. But the stories are mainly the story of the nation—told from the perspective of national interest—and stories of ‘important’ historical figures, which are usually connected to a state’s broader narrative … This kind of narration produces an illusion that everything we talk about…is confined within our identity, in the context of war and history.”
In contrast, Su indicated that personal narratives contain multiple layers. Thus, they can transcend barriers of created by constricting identities. Su concluded, “But…even narratives can be shaped. Over time, storytellers may start to get a sense of what people like to listen [to], and they tell the story to fit in that mega-narrative…so even [the] personal is shaped by the political.”
The forum also gave voice to questions on Japanese culture entrenched in survivors, as well as U.S. involvement in global conflicts. In response, both speakers agreed that sincerity, even when not verbally expressed, can help assuage the pain among sufferers and fatigue in relations between two countries. President Obama’s visit and apology to Hiroshima epitomized this belief in human interaction.
The event attracted genuine engagement from a packed auditorium. Speaking about the long-lasting impacts that such human-to-human interactions can have, Qiu was optimistic: “At a time when tension among nation-states escalates and armed conflicts continue at different parts of the globe, this lecture event serves an important educational need for peace building through both oral history and activist journalism.” Qiu elaborated, “I hope through such an event the survivor’s individual memory can engage with and be [embedded] in our collective memory.” Qiu also praised the structure of the talk, which fostered a dialogue between the speakers and the audience.
The questions raised in the talk, like Koko Kondo’s “Do you have piece of your heart with you?” accompanied students even as they left. West’s calm, yet enduring message—“It is very easy, forgiveness, if you want to forgive, you are going to”—reverberated and lingered in the minds of speakers and listeners alike.
[Correction (April 27): An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of two of the main subjects. They are Cannon and John Hersey, not Hershey.]