By Kelly Fleck
At 13 years old, Setsuko Thurlow, the youngest of seven children, organized her school paper and liked to read books recommended by her older brother, play the organ with her mother and learn English with her father. But her entire life changed in a blinding bluish white flash on August 6, 1945.
A hibakusha, Thurlow survived the nuclear bombing of her home, Hiroshima. She has dedicated the last 70 years of her life to advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons. A leading figure with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize alongside the organization’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, in 2017.
“I feel grateful that I had opportunities and I got more people involved, and they are able to move the government, even the world at the United Nations. Imagine. We couldn’t have envisioned that. If you believe in the truth, in something of value, you have to stick to it,” Thurlow tells “Nikkei Voice” in an interview.
Born in 1932, Thurlow grew up only knowing a Japan at war, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and then the Second World War. Her father was the head of the “honke,” the main household in the family system, and the family grew up in a large home. Her family had lived in the Sacramento area of California for 20 years with a successful farming business. Returning to Japan, shortly before she was born, her family provided her with an upbringing that was a mixture of Western and Japanese culture.
At 13, Thurlow wanted to learn to play the piano and speak English, so she enrolled in a private Christian girls’ school that had a special music program. In the eighth grade, she finally had the chance to start taking piano lessons, having a piano to herself.
“I was so excited in the new environment. Little did I know that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn piano,” says Thurlow.
But the piano classes were cut short when she was among 30 girls in her school recruited as cheap labour to decode messages for the Japanese army.
“We started getting lessons on the decoding of secret messages. Can you imagine a 13-year-old girl dealing with top secret information?” she says.
After three weeks of training, the girls were starting their first official day of work. Listening to introductory speeches in an assembly on the second floor of a military building, Thurlow saw a blinding bluish white light encompass the window and felt her body float up into the air before she lost consciousness. It’s a sensation Thurlow says she still feels to this day.
“When I woke up, I found myself pinned under the collapsed building in the total darkness, in the total silence, it was an eerie experience,” says Thurlow. “Then all of a sudden I started hearing whispers of the girls. They said, ‘God help me, mother help me, I’m here,’ so I knew I wasn’t alone in that darkness. I couldn’t see anyone, but I was surrounded by the girls.”
A hand grabbed Thurlow’s shoulder, shaking her, and the gruff voice of a man told her to crawl towards the light. Though it was still morning, she found that the world was dark, the sky filled with soot and dust from the mushroom cloud above. The building she had just crawled out of was made of wood and was already on fire and she couldn’t go back in. Two other girls came out with her and the rest would burn to death.
In the darkness, Thurlow could see dark shapes moving towards her and realized it was a procession of people, burned, scarred and swollen, with their hair standing up. Thurlow says they moved like ghosts; nobody was running or screaming because no one had the physical strength left. They just shuffled out of the city. The three girls joined the ghosts out of the city to a military base on the foot of a hill.
“We had to learn to step over the dead bodies because they were everywhere,” says Thurlow.
The explosion obliterated 90 per cent of Hiroshima and killed 80,000 people in the immediate explosion. By the end of 1945, the death toll had risen to 140,000. Tens of thousands died from their injuries in the following days, or years later from radiation exposure. The exact death toll is still unknown and people are still dying 75 years later from radiation. Three days after Hiroshima, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing another 40,000.
Both of Thurlow’s parents survived the bombing. Her father was out of the city, fishing on the ocean when he saw the mushroom cloud over the city. Her mother was washing the breakfast dishes when their house fell on top of her, but luckily, she was rescued. Thurlow’s older sister and four-year-old nephew were not so lucky. Although they had evacuated from the city earlier, they had returned to see a doctor the day before the bombing. Terribly burned, they died a couple of days later.
“Every time I think of Hiroshima, the first image I get is this four-year-old child, that cute little fellow, he was nothing but a chunk of flesh,” says Thurlow. “I saw so much, all of us did, so we [hibakushas] made a vow, we dedicated our lives to ensure the deaths of those innocent children, innocent people were not in vain.”
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.
This article was originally published in Nikkei Voice on July 29, 2020 (nikkeivoice.ca). It was later reprinted in Discover Nikkei (discovernikkei.org), a project of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. It is lightly edited here.