An interview with a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing

Professor Norimitsu Tosu (David DeCosse)
This article appears in the Letters from Japan feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: For the fall 2016 semester, David DeCosse is invited visiting professor at Sophia University, the Jesuit university in Tokyo. He is on the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He will be blogging about his experience abroad via the blog "Letters from Japan."


Professor Norimitsu Tosu, 74, survived the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Tosu and his wife, Katsumi, live in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo, where they are parishioners at Matsubara Catholic Church. Their son Fumiaki is a resident of Casa de Clara, the Catholic Worker house in San Jose, Calif.; his daughter, Rei, lives in Orange County, Calif.; and another son, Fumitsugu, lives in Myanmar. Tosu was interviewed in his office in Tokyo Dec. 1. The interview was conducted in English.

DeCosse: Where is your family from in Japan?

Tosu: My father [Yoshio] was from Toyama Prefecture and my mother [Hatsuko] was from Kanagawa Prefecture. They were married and moved to Hiroshima for my father's job. He worked for the Kirin Beer company. My parents moved to Hiroshima in the early 1930s. So my family had lived there for some time.

I was born right here [he pointed to a map of Hiroshima] — that's 1.3 kilometers away from the epicenter of the bombing. It's the Hakushima area of Hiroshima. It's on the river, a very beautiful place. Next to my house was a girls' high school. Around my house were lots of temples. It's a kind of a very religious area, with a lot of Buddhist temples. This is the place — Hijiyama Park — where I played often. My family included my mother and my father; my twin brother [Hiroyoshi]; three elder sisters [Yukiko, Hiroko and Emiko]; and one elder brother [Yoshihiro].

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Can you tell us what happened to you and your family on the day of the bombing?

My elder brother was in the military forces and he was a lot older than me. He was here in Hiroshima and he was dead instantly. But we didn't locate our sister's body. Hiroko was apparently in the blast epicenter area. She was a high school student and many students were forced to work during the war clearing streets of debris and such. So she and other students must have been working around the central area. But we didn't know what happened to her and we never located her body. Nothing. We didn't even know where exactly she was when the bomb exploded.

Only my twin brother and I and my mother were in Hiroshima at our home in Hakushima. The bomb exploded at 8:15 in the morning and we usually made it a rule to walk in the morning. And so my mother and my twin brother and I had just finished walking in the morning and had just entered the house when the bomb exploded. If we had been one minute later, we would have all been dead.

My mother lost consciousness. My twin brother and I must have cried a lot and that awoke my mother. And she pulled us from the debris. I remember she was bleeding all over. She said that she cried out, "Help us! Help us!" But of course no one helped us because everybody was in the same situation. No soldiers came to help us. So she tried to rescue us. The house had completely collapsed. My brother and I were trapped in the bathroom, where we had gone to wash our hands. My mother was in a different room. There was a fire next to our house. So we were in a very dangerous position and she had to hurry to rescue us.

I remember her pulling me out. I have some wounds here [pointing to his arms]. I was of course crying and crying and so I don't remember exactly what it was like. But I remember my mother took my brother and I and walked 4 or 5 kilometers away to our relative's house. This was right after the bomb. You know, strangely, the most vivid memory was not the scene but the smell. I smelled a lot of very unusual and weird smells because there were lots of dead bodies all around us, including lots of dead horses and dogs and men. I remember dead people were lying on the road. But the most impressive thing was the smell: It was like canned salmon. When I open a can of salmon now, I am reminded of that smell.

People were crying, "Give me water, give me water [Mizu, kudasai ... mizu, kudasai!]."

My father was, so to speak, fortunately in the jail. Some people around him at his work had been arrested because of bribery or something. These people had my father's name cards. So he was forced to go to the police office and temporarily he was put in jail. But the jail was a very strong structure, so he was saved from the force of the blast. He was released immediately after the bombing. That was very lucky for us because without my father we would not have had any money to go to colleges and all. My father was rich at that time. Without my father, all of our fates would have changed radically, I think.

My other two sisters had been sent 20 to 30 kilometers away from the city of Hiroshima because the situation was getting worse and people thought that children should be moved away. One still lives in Osaka; the other died 20 years after the bombing.

Right after the dropping of the bomb, my mother and father frantically went out to look for my older brother and for Hiroko. My older brother was a military man and so they knew where he was. But my sister — they didn't know where she was. Partly because my mother was wounded, she was a bit out of her mind because the tragedy was so big. It was a hard time for us.

What did you and your family do in the years after the bombing?

We moved to the south part of Hiroshima. I was raised in Hiroshima up to 15 years old. And then I came to Tokyo for school. My twin brother and I came to a high school here affiliated with Keio University. It was very prestigious and our parents wanted us to go there.

When I was growing up in Hiroshima, there were lots of orphans and lots of very, very poor kids without food. At that time, we used to bring our lunch to school. Some of these kids couldn't bring lunch with them because they were so poor. Some even were barefoot. There were big differences. Some well-to-do families were okay. But one third of the school kids were very poor, I remember, without clean clothes and no food.

Some of my classmates and classmates' parents died when I was in elementary school. People were dying after five or seven years, as an effect of the bombing — leukemia mainly. I was a bit afraid that I might die of leukemia or something. It was scary, very scary. But as a boy, I was also very enthusiastic about games, baseball games and so on. So, during the daytime, it was okay. When I went to bed, sometimes it was kind of scary.

Before I became a Christian, I very often thought that we are fortunate that we are not a country of Christians, that instead we are a country of many Buddhists, because so many people, including my friends, committed suicide while I was very young. Of course, in Christianity, suicide is not permitted. I thought it was lucky that we are not a country of Christians because it meant that these people suffering from so many effects of the war at least were not spoken very ill of.

After high school in Tokyo, what then did you do?

I graduated from Keio University in 1964. At that time, $1 was 360 yen. We were not allowed to take more than $500 outside of the country. So I had to get a full scholarship — a university fellowship or something. I needed American colleges to support me financially because we couldn't bring our dollars to the United States. The best offer came from Brown University and so I went to Brown.

I first studied philosophy, especially logic. But logic, I think, betrayed me because the language we actually use is so different from the language analyzed by logic. And so I shifted my attention to what is called "natural language." I read books on linguistics and among them was Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific — a book which dealt with language in primitive cultures and that attracted me very much. And so I decided to study anthropology. [Tosu eventually received his doctorate from Yale University].

My wife and I met here in Tokyo. I had come back because my mother died when I was at Yale. And so I came back to my mother's funeral. And then I met Katsumi. She was in Tokyo. My mother's funeral was in Hiroshima. But after the funeral, I came back to Tokyo and accidentally I met Katsumi.

In Japan, professors teach mainly at a single university but, on a part-time basis, they often teach at other universities. So I taught altogether at 15 or 16 universities, including summer sessions. But mainly I taught at Keio and Tokyo University and Showa University, a women's college like Wellesley, and at Tokyo Woman's Christian University.

Are there connections between your field of study, in which you've written 10 books, and your experience of the atomic bombing?

Not directly, but indirectly there has been some influence. You know all of us, especially educated people, don't think in terms of dualism, dichotomy, good or bad. But I think that dropping the A-bomb was an absolute evil. We are used to relativism. But there is an absolute evil. And if I pick one thing that is absolutely evil, it is dropping the A-bomb and there is no excuse for that.

And to attack the absolute evil we have to have absolute good. And as an absolute good, we have Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution [the anti-war clause of the Japanese Constitution that is now being contested within Japan]. I would like to stress the importance of Article 9.

It's a very unbelievable thing that U.S. presidents after Truman have never even thought of apologizing for dropping A-bombs on two cities. [American forces dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.] I was curious about why they didn't apologize. Simply because they won the war, they must have thought they did not have to apologize for what they did. But Germans apologized for Auschwitz. Japanese military forces did very cruel things to the people of China and Southeast Asia. And so we repeatedly apologized for those cruel acts. And so I was very interested in why different peoples thought in different ways.

And I think that's one of the reasons that I decided to study anthropology. It seems to me that the different ways of thinking or ways of feeling come from linguistic structures.

What do you think of arguments that Americans use to justify the bombings?

They often cite Pearl Harbor. Whenever we talk about Hiroshima, they bring up Pearl Harbor. But they are very different. The Pearl Harbor attack was on a military installation. But dropping the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was directed at innocent people as well as military people. So it was indiscriminate bombing. You know almost 200,000 innocent people were dead instantly as well as innocent animals, which I note because I am a dog lover and horse lover.

Were you disappointed that President Obama did not apologize when in May 2016 he was the first sitting president of the United States to visit Hiroshima?

Yes, I wish he had. It was a kind of progress that he came to Hiroshima. I think he was internally prone to apologize. But forces around him would never let him do that, I think.

What, specifically, should he have apologized for?

I think there are two aspects. One is the indiscriminate nature of the bombing in terms of a direct attack on innocent people. And the second is discrimination among the races — it was okay to do this to Asian people but not okay to do this to European people. So double discrepancies.

Do you forgive those who decided to drop the atomic bombs?

I sympathize with the pilots who actually dropped the bombs. I don't have any enmity against the people of the United States. But I still don't want to forgive the government, the people who decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. I always think that politicians who decide on these crucial matters should go themselves to carry out such an action.

What is your sense of changes in the world today like the election of Donald Trump and efforts by the current government of Japan to reject the pacifist implications of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution?

We are regressing. We are going back to the 1940s and '50s. I feel that hope is dwindling very much. I don't like [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe and neither do I like Trump. So where should I go? Where should I live? I'm seriously thinking about going to a third country [neither Japan nor the U.S.] because Abe and Trump are so depressing when I think of them and their rule. Our hope for eternal peace without war as a means of settling international problems has all gone.

[David DeCosse serves the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.]


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