Shozo Kawamoto is one of those people who, by telling his story, teaches us how to sew and mend a soul torn apart by the unbearable loss and absence of others. He learned to seal an open wound and turn it into scars for memory.
In the face of horror, two paths are more common: increasing our ability to recognize the suffering of others or self-degrading with anaesthesia. Shozo taught me that the true wrinkles of life must not disappear, because they not only refer to a life experience, but represent the patched part of the abyss that inhabits us all.
Now that he was gone, he left the job of continuing to sew. Allow your memories to intertwine sensitively with ours and thus never be forgotten.
May your legacy flourish and gently touch the souls of those who listen to it, and bind them by the strongest thread: the legacy of shared suffering. Compassion, sympathy or solidarity, able to overcome the coldness of indifference.
I met Kawamoto in January 2018 while in Hiroshima to interview the Hibakusha for his doctoral research. The Japanese term means atomic bomb survivor.
From the beginning, Kawamoto was willing to meet me as many times as necessary so that his memory could be accurately recorded to serve as a call to peace. During the many meetings we had, Kawamoto told me about his deepest memories before, during, and after the war.
He was only 10 years old on August 6, 1945, that day The first atomic bomb exploded in the clear summer sky of Hiroshima. That year alone, 145,000 of its 300,000 residents died.
The Kawamoto family lived 350 meters from the ground zero, inside the area completely destroyed by the pressure and heat waves from the explosion. Kawamoto was evacuated to the countryside with other children by order of the Japanese government.
Three days later his older sister came for him and he greeted her between pain and relief. She worked two kilometers from ground zero and was buried by the collapse of the building. Fires engulfed downtown Hiroshima when they reached what was once her home. There were only burnt remains.
While he was searching among the ruins, he recognized the remains of three, his mother and two younger brothers. Kneel down in prayer, listening to the voices of the other neighbors. He demands more information and discovers that his mother escaped the rubble just in time to watch the house burn with her two children inside. Father and another sister worked close to ground zero and would have disappeared without a trace.
Kawamoto recalls that after the end of the war, much of Hiroshima Station was quickly rebuilt. There he had a small room, where daily he shared a small lunch box with his sister. There he would meet every day the orphans left behind by the bomb, always silently thanking him for having a sister.
He saw orphans rummaging through the garbage for food, drinking murky water from puddles on the street, and fighting like animals over breadcrumbs. He has never forgotten the image of these children sucking stones to trick their stomachs, eating newspapers soaked in dirty water, dying of starvation and burning their bodies with rubbish.
Six months after the explosion, under the influence of radiation, his sister died and Kawamoto was taken to an orphanage in a nearby town. The owner of a large soybean company, who worked for him from Sunday to Sunday, was given 18 hours a day in exchange for food and a place to sleep.
When he was 23, he fell in love with a girl, but her family wouldn’t allow the marriage because he was a hibakusha and thus had a bombshell disease. Grieving, he decides to return to Hiroshima, where he joins the Yakuza mafia group.
Years of violence and death followed. Once again the corpses of colleagues are burned with rubbish and look like rubbish. So much so that he decided he didn’t want to die in disgrace in the same city where the family had died with honor.
He decided again to run away with the clothes on his back. Decides not to marry or have children. He decided not to talk about his history or his origins again.
Kawamoto lives like this until 2005, when a classmate invited him to an event about 60 years after the atomic explosion. I joked with Kawamoto that his friend was more efficient than the yakuza. He says he was the mob’s “fighting dog”, “of his low rank” and that no one would spend time or money to go after him.
The friend could only locate him because in the 1990s the records were computerized and he had to return his records.
Something transformative happened when I realized that surviving, remembering, and having a story to tell meant something.
The explosion erased everything: documents, photos, and objects proving the existence of individuals and families. Only people and their memories remain. Without them, others will never be remembered, those who left, those who ate stones because of hunger, and those who worked as slaves. Your existence will be as if it never happened
The old friend’s reunion made him realize that he was there for someone other than him:
I can live to know that someone remembers me. I didn’t think that would be possible.”
After that he can return to Hiroshima in 2006. He is surprised by the modern city he found. He visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and was very angry when he found that the only mention of the orphans was a photograph with a brief explanation.
Then he decided to devote the rest of his life to telling the story of the Hiroshima orphans.
In June 2022, at the age of 88, after 16 years of volunteering at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Shuzo Kawamoto rested. He left behind the task of continuing to accumulate his legacy.
A week before we said goodbye, he said he wanted to give me a gift, a gift for myself and for the Brazilian people and institutions. So I received two bags: one with folding cranes and the other with small kites, guided by small cranes.
The Tsuru is a legacy left by survivor Sadako Sasaki, who was only two years old on the day of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. At the age of twelve she was diagnosed with leukemia and believed that if she doubled a thousand cranes she would not die. Those who survived will continue to fold this little origami paper in her name.
An act of solidarity, resistance and social responsibility so that no child in the world dies in this way again.
Tsuru represents the hope of a world without wars, where children can be children, and who want more than to survive.
Kawamoto says that during the war there were no games and paper was precious. Every now and then, her mother would hide some papers and fold planes for her children to play with. He asked them to hide them to avoid being reprimanded.
The kite is your mother’s legacy. A woman in the middle of a war makes toys for her children, because she has not forgotten that children need to play. When necessary, he threw himself into the fire so that two children would not die alone. Crane-powered kites were a way to unite her mother’s unique legacy with Sadako’s collective.
Christian Nakagawa was unable to review Shozo Kawamoto. His post-doctoral research expected a reunion and a new story.
We fought hard for research funding to allow this, but this second story will never be told.
Shozo’s story helps us understand how our Brazilian population, so remote from Japanese culture, can learn something about the art of survival, amidst the indigenous, oceanic, black extermination we are witnessing.
The atomic bomb is also here and now, as long as we can learn how lives are destroyed and how life is reconstructed through memory and the thread of suffering.
Many believe that research in the humanities can be deferred indefinitely, and that its funding is less important than areas that generate social returns, in terms of technology and innovation.
Others, during Bolsonaro’s government, suffered reductions that lost biological products, longitudinal investigations, or demographic studies that depended on the continuity of years and decades.
There are endangered species that do not have time to wait for their management luck.
Reducing investment in scientific research may seem accidental, among many other social demands.
However, in the midst of the setback of the past four years, there is still room to remember that there are things that are irreversible, and that a time of cutbacks, austerity, and inefficiency can be deadly, in the real time of life and death.
At this time real research is taking place, where we can think and implement the transformations that we really want.
*She collaborated with Christian Nakagawa, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the South Pacific Institute of Psychology, who specializes in survivors of the nuclear attacks on Japan.
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