By Kathleen Burkinshaw
Every year in May, 20 Hiroshima city employees gather at the Cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. After a moment of silence at 8:15am (time the bomb was dropped), they begin to remove the 114 leather bound volumes that now hold over 305,000 handwritten names of each person that was in Hiroshima that day and has since died (unknown victims also have a dedicated page).
I think of the compassion and reverence that these employees hold for the atomic bomb victims. They use white gloves to carefully remove one volume at a time, place them on a white sheet, and delicately air them out page by page. After that, they move these registers inside to be protected from the upcoming humid, rainy season. Lastly, they add the names of Hiroshima survivors who have passed away within this last year (regardless of where they were when they died). At the August 6th memorial service, they will return these volumes to again rest under the protection of the cenotaph arch.
I added my mother’s name to one of those leather-bound volumes in July 2015, when my husband, daughter and I visited Hiroshima six months after she passed away. As I stood in front of the cenotaph, I believed my mom had come full circle. She returned, in a sense, to her beloved papa, her family, and her friends. And yes, I felt the pain of the horrific suffering and loss that happened on that very ground, as well as in the years that followed for the survivors whether physical, emotional, or both. But, in my heart I also felt the strength of the survivors like my mom who kept moving forward when the world they knew ceased to exist.
However, moving forward entailed many obstacles along my mother’s path. She dealt with prejudice in her own county after the atomic bomb since people didn’t understand or know much about radiation, nor did they really know specifics about what happened in Hiroshima because of censorship during the American Occupation after WWII (how she deals with this, is in my current WIP😊) Later, my mom faced prejudice after she married my dad in 1959 (he was in Air Force stationed in Japan), and settled in the U.S. She learned English, became a citizen within five years, and barely spoke about her experience during the war-all because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. Except for the beloved picture of her with her papa in a place of honor in our home, some Japanese children songs and Japanese fairy tales-she wanted everything to be “American”. I was nine-years-old when she first told me she was born in Hiroshima, not Tokyo. A year later I realized my mom’s first name wasn’t really Betty, but Toshiko. She went by Betty because people told her it was easier to say/remember, than her Japanese name.
I remember that during my childhood, the sound of flies buzzing, or a siren at a mill-were all mild annoyances to me and to most people I knew. But to my mother, they were triggers for flashbacks to the most frightening day of her life. So much so, I knew I must include the descriptions in my MG historical fiction, The Last Cherry Blossom (Sky Pony Press) when she and her stepmother walked to the center of town after the atomic bomb dropped, “Incessant buzzing from the flies droned in our ears. The insects swirled around like dust shaken from tatami mats when they were being cleaned.” My mother easily angered when flies were near food and would sometimes leave the table (even in a restaurant) because of that. A neighboring town still had a siren that went off at 7:30am and pm during the week (left over from days of being a mill town) and when she heard it, she’d physically tense up. “The deafening hum of a low-flying plane drowned out Machiko’s reply. This time a siren sounded. The hair lifted on the back of my neck.”
From listening to my mother’s memories of what happened on August 6th and as I now research for my WIP, I couldn’t help but think that not only did she lose her home and loved ones, but she also had to give up a piece of herself. So, standing in front of the cenotaph three years ago, I hoped that by honoring her at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims, she could regain that part of her because she was back home. I hope that The Last Cherry Blossom helps with that as well, because every time I speak about my mom with students/readers, I’m talking about the woman I knew. The bravest woman I’ll ever know, who despite all she lost on August 6th, never lost her ability to love. She also was an intelligent, Japanese woman named Toshiko, a Hibakusha (Hiroshima survivor), but most of all a wonderful, giving person, that I’m blessed to have known as my mom.
Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle and high schools for the past 8 years. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything. The Last Cherry Blossom, is recently nominated for the NC School Library Media Assoc. YA Book Award,a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Finalist (southeast region), 2016 & 2018 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection, nominated for both the 2018 NC Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the 2018 Sakura Medal in Japan. You can follow her on Twitter @klburkinshaw1, Instagram @kathleenburkinshaw, & Facebook @authorKathleenBurkinshaw as well as her website www.kathleenburkinshaw.com.