Survivors of past and present-day anti-Asian violence lead the call for a nuclear-free world

In the Christian tradition, it’s only fitting that those on the margins, like Asian survivors of violence, should lead the call to convert swords into plowshares.

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This article has been adapted from a homily organized by the Ecumenical Peace Institute and Livermore Conversion Project with support from TriValleyCAREs and Western States Legal Foundation.

For a number of us in the Asian American community, the current attention to anti-Asian violence triggers our historical memory and experiences of trans-generational trauma. Lessons from the past can be instructive to inform and shape our public debate on the proliferation of the weapons of war and the pursuit of global peace. 

Both sets of my grandparents were Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century and both lived through harsh anti-Asian sentiment in the early 1900s leading up to the anti-Asian Exclusion Act in 1924. Both sets of grandparents also lived through the mass incarceration in World War II where they lost their homes and businesses. My mother’s family lost their farm in Fresno as they were sent to Jerome, Arkansas. My father’s family lost their restaurant and home in West Oakland as they were sent to Topaz, Utah. 

In 1988 Congress apologized to Japanese Americans for the losses of civil liberties through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Their report cited three factors leading to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans: pre-existing racism, a lack of political leadership and war time hysteria. We have seen this toxic triangle present in recent waves of military incursions and engagement impacting Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi and Afghan communities here and abroad. And we see these factors present today in the ways our foreign policy has influenced anti-Asian violence here in the United States. 

Previous Coverage
  • Anti-Asian violence shares the same roots as the hatred plaguing all communities of color
  • Pivot to Peace is an organization that has emerged during the pandemic specifically addressing the cause and effect of current anti-Asian sentiment arising out of U.S. demonization of China as our enemy — a foreign policy strategy that has evolved since the pivot to Asia in 2011. In polls, nearly half of Americans believe that China is the greatest threat to U.S. security. It is no wonder that racial animus already present among a significant portion of our population has been stirred up by statements from the Trump administration scapegoating China for the pandemic. 

    But Pivot to Peace also reminds us that the demonization of China as a foreign policy threat preceded the last administration and even continues in the current presidency of Joe Biden. Depicted as an enemy to be feared, China provides justification for continued funding of nuclear weapons and a readiness and preparedness for deterrence, rather than diplomatic gestures. Anti-Asian violence today is part of the collateral damage of our foreign policy rhetoric targeting China as the enemy of the day. 

    Many would argue that anti-Asian racism was also at play in the dropping of the only nuclear bombs ever to be unleashed upon humanity against the civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

    The experience of the hibakusha 

    My mother-in-law, Michiko Tatsuguchi, was just a teenager living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped in 1945. She and her whole family somehow miraculously survived that tragic event and she ended up living a relatively long life into her 60s, compared to many who died soon after the bombing or in ensuing years as a result of radiation exposure. She did succumb to cancer, as was the case for many survivors. 

    She rarely talked about her experience, except to describe the obvious horrors of witnessing a living hell — seeing dismembered persons wandering the streets, as well as a graveyard of dead bodies and ashes scattered all over the city. As a survivor, she was what we call “hibakusha.” The word literally means “a person who receives a bomb,” but in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has come to mean those who survived the nuclear holocaust. 

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    While my mother-in-law rarely spoke about what she experienced, others have documented their experiences with the support of academic researchers on the subject. Naomi Shohno, in her 1986 publication, “The Legacy of Hiroshima: Its Past, Our Future” captured a number of stories of hibakusha. Eiko Matsunaga was an elementary school girl in Hiroshima and related this memory: 

    “Mommy, where are you?” Crying for my mother, I tried to get close to where her voice was coming from. She was lying under a fallen roof, and she was knocking from the inside of something like a sheet of zinc, but her voice was growing thinner and weaker. I was too weak to lift the big broken pieces of wall, pillars and glass windows. I sobbed, “Mommy, I can’t let you out, because there are a lot of broken pieces…” Then my mother’s voice faded. Yet I didn’t feel especially sad or think about trying to free her. I was simply stunned, and just stood still, looking into the roof. The knocking sound stopped, too. “Eiko-chan,” said my brother. He had a deep wound in his belly which was about 10 centimeters long and looked like an appendectomy incision. Whenever he moved, blood oozed out of the wound, and his bowels were hanging out. All I could think was that he seemed to be a different person, someone I didn’t know. My older sister sat down, saying she felt ill. My father had just crept out of a rubble heap. It seemed he was about to suggest that we help my mother get out, but my brother cried, “Come now. We must run away, or all of us will be burned to death. Be quick!” I looked around. The fire came upon us in a big wave.

    Needless to say, stories abound from those who witnessed the deaths and disappearances of family members and their painful experiences have lingered for a lifetime for most survivors who were able to extend their lives.

    Last year, in August 2020 my family and I had the opportunity to participate in the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the Japanese-American community here in the San Francisco Bay Area. The event centered around the testimonies of hibakusha who had migrated to the United States from Japan and now resided in the Bay Area. 

    Friends of Hibakusha

    The Friends of Hibakusha was founded in 1981 and was created to provide support to those survivors of the bombings who were living in the United States. The intent was to help with the physical, psychological and spiritual scars experienced as a result of the bombings, especially given the lack of any U.S. support for them. Like my mother-in-law, it was difficult for many hibakusha to tell their stories for years because of the trauma that continued to linger, but over time some began to recall memories and share their stories publicly. 

    Creating public spaces for the survivors to tell their stories became part of the work of Friends of Hibakusha. As the only living witnesses to the horrors of nuclear devastation, they became a haunting, but clearly unified voice calling for a nuclear free world where no one will ever experience such travesty ever again. Their refrain reverberates the cry: “No more Hiroshimas. No more Nagasakis.” 

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    With the passing of time, most hibakusha have also now passed away. But the hope is that the legacy of this generation of survivors will continue to live on in our world, and perhaps even hover amongst us as ancestral spirits blowing with the wind of the spirit to inform our collective consciousness and decision making on the planet. 

    Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons 

    At our 75th anniversary commemoration, we also shared a call for the ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. When the treaty was officially ratified later in the year and became official in 2021, you can imagine that for the hibakusha, this was a significant step forward in the long journey towards hope for a nuclear free world. 

    There are many reactions to the fact that all nine of the states possessing nuclear weapons have not signed on to the treaty, and, in fact, the United States has intentionally lobbied against it. But from the standpoint of faith, perhaps it is significant that the treaty has been initiated, signed and ratified by non-nuclear states. For those of us of the Christian faith, we know that Jesus came to empower the marginalized and the powerless, and to challenge those who wield the power of weapons and of empire. It is only fitting that it is those nations who have no nuclear weapons are the ones to call on those wielding the power and threat of weapons to put the weapons away, so that we can live in peace in this world. As we invoke the words of Isaiah, we know that Jesus came with a message to help us turn our swords of violence and destruction into plowshares for the cultivation and planting of new life on the earth. It is the marginalized nations who can best show us the way to build beloved community among the human family. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Celebrating a major step toward banning nuclear weapons
  • What are the stories that we might hear from these non-nuclear states about their living conditions and vision for the future, which clearly does not include nuclear weapons? 

    Among the supporters of the treaty, Palestine was one of the first to ratify it, ironically, as a people living under the oppression of a brutal military occupation. Living without freedom of their own, theirs was a voice from the margins sharing these powerful words to the negotiating conference that discussed the new treaty: “But doomsday is not inevitable and the power of collective will should never be underestimated.” 

    These words of hope come from a people whom we might not blame if they were feeling hopeless in the face of decades of unresolved oppression. 

    Engagement of faith communities 

    As a United Methodist pastor, it has been heartening to know that our General Board of Church and Society has been one among over 300 participating organizations involved with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, playing their part in the development of the new treaty. But we also know that participation from a national church agency does not guarantee the engagement of the entire body, and especially at the grassroots level of congregational life. 

    The Rev. Nobu Hanaoka, one of the remaining living hibakusha, and one of the founders of the Friends of Hibakusha, was only an infant when the bomb fell in Nagasaki upon his family. He is bringing forth a resolution to our California Nevada Annual Conference to contact President Biden and the State Department to express our collective support for the treaty, and to call upon all of our congregations to read and study the contents of the treaty. Although he carries no memories as an infant living through the bombing, he does carry a living consciousness in his being that rises up from the ashes of destruction in calling for the conversion of swords into plowshares. The resolution is intended to engage the highest levels of the U.S. government for accountability, but at the same time engage our churches at the grassroots level, where collective consciousness and collective will must be cultivated for change to be actualized. 

    Local, regional, and national grassroots action has also been urged on by Marylia Kelly of TriValleyCAREs in her report on the activities at the Livermore Labs. We are urged to take action in support of legislation that would literally convert swords into plowshares through legislation introduced by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna. Their bill proposes to defund the Pentagon’s development of a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, and Livermore Lab’s development of a new warhead that would sit atop the missile. 

    The bill is called the Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICBM) Act. It would fund the development of a universal coronavirus vaccine to save lives before investing in a new and lethal ICBM, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, missile. Further, the bill would redirect funds from Livermore’s W87-1 warhead to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention to research and combat emerging infectious diseases. The bill would also prevent any new funding for the GBSD missile or W87-1 warhead in the upcoming fiscal year 2022 federal budget. The bill number in the Senate is S.982. In the House it is H.R.2227. We are urged to contact our representatives to co-sponsor the bill. 

    Groups like the Poor People’s Campaign are carrying out the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he named the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism in the year leading up to his death. In the context of the Vietnam War, King made the explicit connection between spending for war and those sent to fight our wars, while conditions here in this country continued to languish. King was speaking about intersectionality before it became a more commonly used phrase for solidarity building among and between justice movements. Our intersectionality explicitly stands on the principles of the indivisibility of justice. 

    As King said: “We must all learn to live together as siblings (brothers) or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

    May the solidarity of our mutuality be on the increase day by day as we seek to convert swords into plowshares for the renewal of the earth. Amen.

    This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

    Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

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