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March 28, 2013

A-bomb survivors tell stories of love, loss, migration

Nearly 70 years after the United States bombed Japan in 1945, Michigan State University has acquired the world’s largest collection of interviews with bomb survivors living in North and South America.

After months of cataloging, 56 interviews of those who lived through bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima – ranging from 45 minutes to several hours – are now part of the G. Robert Vincent Voice Library of MSU Libraries. They are available worldwide through MSU Libraries’ online public access catalog.

Most interviews are in Japanese, but some, especially with survivors’ family members, are in English, said Naoko Wake, assistant professor in Lyman Briggs College and Department of History. All those interviewed migrated west after the bombings.

About 1,150 survivors remain in North and South America, most of whom are in their 80s, Wake said. The MSU collection contains interviews from survivors from seven countries, collected by Japanese filmmaker Shinpei Takeda for his documentary “Hiroshima Nagasaki Download.”

“The majority of interviewees are women; and in Asian American history, it can be difficult to focus on women because the community has consistently given leadership positions to men,” Wake said. “Their voices aren’t on many public records, so for historians it’s very hard to reconstruct what they might’ve been thinking after the bombs. This collection may remedy some of that.”

Wake stumbled across the interviews while researching for her book on American atomic bomb survivors. She turned to MSU Libraries for help in requesting the archive and together they contacted Takeda.

“These are stories of people moving from one country to another, experiencing different cultures, political climates and societal circumstances, trying to make sense of what it means to be victimized by the bombs,” Wake said. “And it’s interesting that they’ve reconstructed their memories based on others’ accounts.”

Listening to the interviews, Wake discovered the biggest issue facing North and South American survivors is access to medical care for physical and psychological issues, cancer, high blood pressure and other ailments – issues most believe are caused by radiation from the bombs.

From watching “black rain” fall from a gray sky to watching loved ones die to interracial marriages, survivors have struggled to make sense of the bombings, Wake said. It’s one thing to read about the events in history books, but to hear firsthand accounts, ripe with emotion, is invaluable to students and scholars studying the social effects of nuclear holocaust.

“Receiving this collection broadens the power of a major research university such as MSU and enhances what MSU Libraries can provide to faculty, staff and people all around the world,” said John Shaw, assistant head of the Vincent Voice Library. “This collection was created by a very talented man, and we’re proud to be part of it.”

The Vincent Voice Library contains more than 40,000 hours of audio recordings dating back to 1888 and includes the voices of more than 200,000 people.

By: Kristen Parker