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Hiroshima 75 Years Later: An Interview with Survivor Setsuko Thurlow, Part 2

Setsuko Thurlow accepts Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons with a stirring and inspiring lecture. Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, left, presents the award to Beatrice Fihn and Setsuko Thurlow at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Photo courtesy: ICAN.

By Kelly Fleck

Ed. — This article continues from the August 27th issue, where a 13-year-old Setsuko and her parents miraculously survive the atomic bombing, and she vows to dedicate her life to ensuring that the thousands killed did not die in vain.

Thurlow started by speaking to high school and university students, church groups, and women’s groups. Now she has spoken at UN conferences, to diplomats from nations around the world. She speaks to give a human face to debates that often revolve around diplomacy, weapons systems and strategic plans, as someone who witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb firsthand.

“Human suffering continues 75 years later. And what we suffered from was a primitive, crude bomb. Today… bombs are thousands of times more destructive,” says Thurlow.

Today there are over 14,000 nuclear weapons in current arsenals, in nine countries, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ican.org). A single nuclear weapon could indiscriminately wipe out a city, and fallout of the radiation has long-term effects on those exposed, causing cancer and birth defects, as well as lasting damage to the environment.

Thurlow’s activism took off in 1954, when the U.S. detonated a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. She was studying sociology at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and spoke out against the act in a newspaper article. Thurlow faced harsh backlash from readers, who sent her hate mail, telling her ‘to go home’ and ‘remember Pearl Harbor.’ Scared to go out, or even go to class, Thurlow had a week of serious soul-searching.

“It was really a traumatic experience for me,” says Thurlow. “But I’m glad I came out of that period with a decision. If I don’t speak out, who would? No survivors, nobody else… had the firsthand experience. I can tell them the truth, if they don’t like it, well too bad, I can’t make up this story. So I kept on speaking.”

Thurlow moved to Toronto with her new husband, Canadian historian Jim Thurlow, in 1955. After a year of waiting for her parents’ final approval, the two left Virginia, where mixed-race marriages were still illegal, and married in Washington, D.C. before coming to Canada. Jim was Thurlow’s confidant and support system for over 50 years. Together they organized numerous events and anti-nuclear groups, and even a scholarship, the James and Setsuko Thurlow Scholarship in Peace and Disarmament Studies.

On July 7, 2017, history was made after weeks of intense negotiations, when 122 nations to one, the UN voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty is a legally binding categorical ban on nuclear weapons. When the vote results came in, people around Setsuko jumped up, clapping and hugging each other, and the press swooped in to take photos of her reaction. But Thurlow was in shock; the treaty was not something she thought she would see in her lifetime, she says.

“At that moment what I did do was to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people who perished,” says Thurlow. “It’s always their image and memory in my mind. Especially when something special like that happens. I reported to them, we have come to this point. It’s not complete success, but the first step we achieved, and please wait, we will continue.”

In December 2017, in Oslo, Norway, Thurlow accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with Beatrice Fihn on behalf of ICAN, for their work to get the treaty adopted. Thurlow wore one of her mother’s kimonos, refashioned into a blouse, to bring a piece of her mother with her. For Thurlow, the prize was reassurance that they were on the right path and tremendous encouragement to keep going.

On October 24, 2020, the treaty became international law, after being ratified by 50 countries. Before the treaty’s adoption, ICAN campaigned to the heads of state around the world, and Thurlow wrote personal letters to each of those leaders, sharing her story and asking them to ratify the treaty. Notably, the nine nuclear armed states did not attend the initial vote to adopt the UN treaty.

In July 2020, Thurlow wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to take action against nuclear weapons. In her letter, she asks Trudeau to issue a statement of regret, acknowledging Canada’s part in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, and for Canada to ratify the UN treaty.

In 1942, the Mackenzie King government acquired Eldorado Gold Mines Ltd. for nearly $5 million. The refinery in Port Hope, Ontario was used by the Canadian government to refine uranium ore harvested in Canada and Belgian Congo, used in the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bombs.

In 1943, Prime Minister King hosted American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Quebec City, where they signed the Quebec Agreement, agreeing to jointly develop the atom bomb.

By acknowledging Canada’s role in the making of the atom bomb, Thurlow hopes more Canadians will learn about its history and the real risk it still holds today. For many Canadians, the bombing of Hiroshima is an issue between the U.S. and Japan. But while nuclear weapons exist still, they affect the whole world, says Thurlow.

Until the treaty is ratified, non-governmental organizations and individuals have power, and there are lots of ways they can bring forth change, says Thurlow. Since accepting the peace prize, Thurlow has been awarded a handful of honorary degrees, including from the University of Toronto in 2019. When speaking to students, she shares her story, and encourages them to be agents of change, to contribute to society and to make change for the collective good.

At 88 years old, Thurlow shows no signs of slowing down. Before COVID-19, she was still speaking to groups around the world. As more of the hibakusha become too frail or pass away, Thurlow is still fighting.

“Hibakusha’s are dying, and their motto has been, and still is, nuclear abolition in our lifetime. While we’re alive, with our own eyes, we’d like to see that treaty be signed. I’m afraid it’s going to take a long time,” says Thurlow.

Kelly Fleck is the editor of Nikkei Voice, a nationally distributed Japanese-Canadian newspaper. A graduate of Carleton University’s Bachelors of Journalism program, Kelly is interested in exploring stories about identity, culture, and community. As a Yonsei, her goal is to write and share stories that connect and celebrate the Japanese Canadian community.

Editor’s notes. Setsuko Thurlow’s closing remarks at the Nuclear Ban Treaty Negotiations, UN, New York, March 28, 2017, are on YouTube, on channel “International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons” (7 min, 35 sec.).

To date, 55 nations have ratified the ICAN treaty. Notably, the nine nuclear-armed countries have not (China, France, India, Israel, N Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, US). An additional five hosting US weapons are similarly resisting (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey).  For a complete list, see icanw.org.

Discover Nikkei is published online by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles (discovernikkei.org).