Testimonies of atomic terror: lest we forget


JAPAN:Akihito Ito began recording the voices of atom bomb survivors 40 years ago. As Japan marks the anniversary of Nagasaki, he still hasn't finished, he tells David McNeill

HAS GEORGE Bush ever heard of Akihito Ito? Dismayed at Pentagon plans to develop a new generation of "tactical" nuclear weapons - so-called mini-nukes - Ito sent President Bush a gift: a box of CDs carrying the recorded voices of 284 atomic-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"I know there are US laws forbidding politicians from accepting expensive presents, so I stuck a price on the cover," explains Ito. "One dollar."

The recordings contain enough horrors to keep even the architect of the Iraq war awake at night. Witness after witness describes incinerated and shredded human bodies, babies clinging to dead mothers, unrecognisable friends and loved ones.

"I found a friend of mine in the water. He looked at me and asked, 'Is there anything wrong with my face?' It looked like a melting candle. I told him that his face was falling off."

Ito first heard accounts like that as a reporter for Nagasaki Broadcasting in the late 1960s, and persuaded his bosses to put them on air. When he was told to move on to other work, he quit instead and began to track down and record hibakusha - survivors of the 1945 nuclear bombs.

"I'm not finished yet," he says, showing off his latest discovery: YouTube, where he has just posted a video-clip called Hiroshima Nagasaki A-Bomb Victims Voices. (You Tube video: http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=p2LCqgbdHog.)

The video introduces the latest stage of Ito's long campaign to preserve the hibakusha stories: English translations, which have been uploaded onto the website Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or www.voshn.com.

They are, says Ito proudly, unedited and unique. "When I was a reporter, short comments by these people were used but the rest of the recordings were thrown away. I always thought, 'is this right?' They're so important."

Retired at 71 and living in a Tokyo home for the elderly, Ito has never been busier. He recently returned from a one-year stay in Hiroshima where he videotaped hundreds of A-bomb survivors; in October he will head for Nagasaki to do the same. He and a small team of about a dozen Japanese and foreign volunteers are starting work on the Chinese translation of the website contents, followed by Russian.

Everything is funded from his own pocket. Ito won't accept sponsors because it would compromise his journalistic integrity. After resigning from his Nagasaki post, he survived by working in a succession of part-time jobs, including security guard, waiter and encyclopedia salesman, while travelling the country to interview 1,840 survivors. He sent over 1,000 sets of his audiotapes to libraries and research institutions then later transferred to CDs.

When a friend told him he could reach many more people on the internet he was overjoyed, and initially overwhelmed. "I'd never operated a computer until two years ago," he says. The Japanese website has since had a respectable 100,000 hits but just 3,600 in English, so this month Ito, who lives on a state pension, took out six ads publicising his website in the Japan Times, at a cost of about 1.6 million yen (€9,700). He reckons he has spent the same amount on Japanese language newspapers last year.

Ito's web introduction starts with an apology. "We Japanese once invaded and annexed Asian countries. We attacked Pearl Harbor without a proclamation of war. We treated prisoners of war cruelty (sic)." Then it begs the world to abandon the A-bomb, which incinerated about 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is still killing radiation victims today. Comments from foreign readers have started to trickle in, although Ito can only read them with the aid of a dictionary. One reads: "Thank you for making these voices available to the rest of the world. My hope is for complete elimination of nuclear weapons for the present and for coming generations."

Ito shares that goal, and is undeterred by one of the bleakest periods for ban-the-bomb campaigners in a generation.

The old nuclear club of Russia, China, France and Britain has been joined by Israel, Pakistan, India and most recently North Korea. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is widely acknowledged to be crumbling.

The US, which still boasts an arsenal of about 8,000 "active or operational" warheads, each on average carrying 20 times the destructive power of Hiroshima, is one of only three countries that oppose a UN resolution demanding the abolition of nuclear arms.

"I'm an optimist," says Ito. "I believe our information age makes it harder to use these weapons because we can instantly see the damage they cause. There are only four photographs of Hiroshima on the day it was bombed. Think about what would happen today if such a thing happened."

He says he never did get a reply to his letter to Mr Bush, nor to the same package he sent to former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, which came back opened. But he knows what he would say if he ever met either.

"Don't kill babies or children or anyone else with nuclear weapons."