After Hiroshima’s Carnage, Setsuko Thurlow Devoted Her Life to Peace
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Setsuko Thurlow, then just 13, reported for her first full day of duty in Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. Together with 30 other girls, she had been recruited to assist with code breaking at a military office in Hiroshima.
The major in charge of the unit was exhorting the teenagers to demonstrate their patriotism when, at 8:15 a.m., a blast detonated over the city. Out the window, Ms. Thurlow saw a burst of bluish white light.
She was thrown into the air, losing consciousness. When she came to, it was dark and silent, and she was pinned under parts of the wooden building.
“I’m going to die here,” she thought to herself.
More than 150,000 people are thought to have perished in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 75 years ago this month. Ms. Thurlow survived, but the attack would shape the rest of a life spent fighting for the abolition of nuclear weapons — work for which she jointly accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
Nine years after the leveling of Hiroshima — followed by Nagasaki’s destruction three days later — Ms. Thurlow arrived in Virginia from Japan to study sociology. Local reporters asked what she thought of an American hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific that year that had killed a Japanese fisherman.
Ms. Thurlow — then named Nakamura — did not hesitate. “I feel angry,” she said.
Many survivors of the atomic attacks were reluctant to share their accounts, much less say anything that could be construed as criticism of the United States, which occupied Japan after the war.
But Ms. Thurlow described how she had jumped over dead bodies to cross the city on that horrific day. “It was hell on earth,” she told the reporters.
Since then, Ms. Thurlow, now 88, has insistently told her story in unflinching detail to thousands of people at protests, conferences, schools and even on cruise ships. Three years ago, she delivered an acceptance lecture in Oslo when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Speaking on a video call from her home in Toronto last month, Ms. Thurlow said: “I am one of those who can tell a firsthand story of human suffering that the bomb caused. To me that was a very important moral imperative.”
She shares memories not only to bear witness to what it is like to survive a nuclear bomb, but also to put political pressure on governments to get rid of atomic weaponry for good.
Before this year’s anniversary of the dropping of the two bombs, Ms. Thurlow wrote to 197 heads of state asking them to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was formally adopted at the United Nations three years ago. The world’s nine nuclear-armed countries have refused to sign the treaty on the grounds the weapons are necessary for deterrence.
During a two-hour interview, Ms. Thurlow said she was particularly disappointed that Japan and her adopted country, Canada, also had not signed the treaty, although neither possesses nuclear weapons.
“Japan is overly subservient to U.S. policy, which just breaks our heart,” she said. “We survivors have been abandoned by our own country.”
In return for her criticism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given her the cold shoulder, rebuffing requests to meet her when she has traveled to Japan. Even after the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Abe did not acknowledge her.
In more than four decades as an antinuclear activist in Canada, the home country of her late husband, James Thurlow, a teacher she met in Japan in the 1950s, Ms. Thurlow has offered an emotional counterpoint to otherwise dry policy negotiations over the weapons.
“It is so easy for nuclear weapons to become an abstract theory,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN. “But even though I have heard Setsuko speak so many times, always some part of her story just hits me hard.”
On that summer morning 75 years ago, when Ms. Thurlow slowly regained consciousness after the blast, she started to hear the whispers of some of her classmates. “Mother, help me,” they moaned.
Then, a stronger voice and someone shaking her shoulder: “Don’t give up,” she heard, and a soldier urged her to crawl toward sunlight, where he freed her. She was less than two miles from ground zero.
She walked into a hellscape, where a procession of people trudged on the roads, body parts missing, some carrying their own eyeballs. “They didn’t look like human beings,” she said.
Ms. Thurlow’s favorite sister and 4-year-old nephew died in the bombing, and she saw their bodies tossed into a pit and cremated en masse. Her father, who was fishing in Hiroshima Bay that morning, survived. So did her mother, rescued from the family’s collapsed house.
Just two months after the bombing, Ms. Thurlow returned to her Christian girls school. She also met Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor profiled by the journalist John Hersey in “Hiroshima,” his book about the bombing and its aftermath.
After the bombing, Ms. Thurlow said, she questioned the God worshiped by so many Americans. But at the school and with Mr. Tanimoto, she was surrounded by Christian adults who supported her emotionally. “Because of them, I was able to deal with that crisis and came out of that trauma,” she said. Three years after the blast, she converted.
On a volunteer expedition to build a community center for coal miners in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, she met her future husband. Having learned English in school, she decided she wanted to study social work in the United States, and earned a scholarship to what is now known as the University of Lynchburg in Virginia.
After she arrived and told reporters of her anger about the American hydrogen bomb tests, she received unsigned hate mail, some of it demanding she go back to Japan.
“How am I going to live in this new land?” she wondered. “I can’t put a zipper over my mouth.”
When she appeared at a Lions Club meeting later that autumn to speak, the headline in the local newspaper read: “Jap Girl in Plea Against A-Bomb’s Use,” according to archival research by Charlotte Jacobs, a Stanford medical professor who is writing a biography of Ms. Thurlow.
She also experienced other forms of racism after coming to the United States.
When Mr. Thurlow, who had remained in Japan teaching, arrived a year later, interracial marriages were prohibited in Virginia. So the couple married in Washington and moved to Toronto, where they raised two sons.
For the 30th anniversary of the bombings, Ms. Thurlow staged a photo exhibition at the University of Toronto and worked with Toronto’s Roman Catholic archdiocese and the mayor’s office to develop a memorial peace garden in cooperation with the City of Hiroshima.
Such opportunities might not have been open to her had she remained in Japan, particularly in a culture where women were not expected to lead civic movements.
In Canada, “she got confident and was very connected at very high levels to political people,” said Akira Kawasaki, who serves on the executive committee of Peace Boat, a Japanese nonprofit group that operates socially conscious cruises that have hosted Ms. Thurlow as a speaker.
Ms. Thurlow is not afraid to confront political leaders. At a 2014 conference in Vienna, Toshio Sano, then Japan’s disarmament ambassador, said experts were being “pessimistic” when they testified that relief organizations would be unable to provide meaningful aid after a nuclear bombing.
Ms. Thurlow sharply challenged him — in front of Japanese news cameras.
“What exactly do you mean?” she asked, noting that nuclear weapons were now so powerful that few would survive a bombing and benefit from aid.
And in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she asked that Canada apologize for its role in contributing uranium to the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Asked to comment on Ms. Thurlow’s request, Adam Austen, the spokesman for Canada’s foreign minister, said, “Canada remains committed to constructively advancing the nuclear disarmament process and salutes the tireless efforts of activists — including Setsuko Thurlow — for their work in drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.”
Japan’s foreign ministry, in response to Ms. Thurlow’s criticism of the country’s decision not to sign the nuclear weapons treaty, said: “Large-scale military power including nuclear force still exists in the actual international community. In order to ensure national security in such a severe security environment, it is necessary to rely on deterrence, including that of nuclear weapons of the United States.”
Having witnessed nuclear horrors in her childhood, Ms. Thurlow embraces pleasures where she finds them. As recently as February, she was still traveling internationally.
Some critics say hibakusha like Ms. Thurlow can succeed in their disarmament message only if they talk about the atrocities committed by Japan during the war as well. “Somehow you have to universalize your message,” said Yuki Tanaka, a retired research professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, “not just talk about your own sadness and pain.”
Ms. Thurlow said the power of a true, human story could inspire commitment to a cause. She puts faith in the young students and activists she has met.
“I enjoy talking to young people,” she said. “They really listen to me like dried sponges getting water.”
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed research.