For a Kinder, Gentler Society
A Dimly Burning Wick: Memoir from the Ruins of Hiroshima
  • Sadako Okuda, Pamela B. Vergun
Reviews Table of Contents Introduction «Back
A Dimly Burning Wick: Memoir from the Ruins of Hiroshima.
Sound Bite

As the United States debates launching another war in the Middle East, this passionate diary paired with a pondered discussion provides a reality check on how governments goad citizens into going to war and gives a forthright look at the hideous results for civilian casualties. Who bears the responsibility for decisions made in a "democracy" when our leaders or the media exaggerate the threat and downplay the harm our actions will cause?

In this agonizing diary, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima relates the horror of searching through smoldering rubble for signs of her family. She documents for the world the selfless compassion of the youngest victims. The children Okuda tried to save stunned her with their dignity and enduring will to help others and to hold their families together.

She, and the children, generously insist on avoiding bitterness and blame. But as responsible citizens, we still have to face ourselves in the mirror. A thoughtful introduction and supporting essays provide this harrowing memoir with a context in history and social psychology.


About the Author

Born in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, in 1914, Okuda was a sewing teacher on a small island some 35 miles outside of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Even at that distance, both her sight and hearing on her right side were permanently damaged. Since 1960 and until her recent retirement, she taught home economics at a non-traditional high school in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. She still lives in the mountains she loves, close to her school.

The translator and editor, Pamela Vergun, earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University, her Masters Degree from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and her B.A. in Language Studies from UC Santa Cruz. She currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area with her husband and two children.

The illustrations were created by Mia Nolting, a freelance illustrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. The Foreword is by Catherine Thomasson, past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

About the Book

Sadako Okuda was a sewing teacher on a small island some 35 miles outside of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. At the heart of A Dimly Burning Wick is her searing diary recording the final moments of dying civilians...

Sadako Okuda was a sewing teacher on a small island some 35 miles outside of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. At the heart of A Dimly Burning Wick is her searing diary recording the final moments of dying civilians and their distinctive perspective on this horrific event. The first part of the book presents a series of immediate, sickening, and amazing impressions as the sufferers extend gestures of enormous humanity and generosity amid hell-like conditions. Most harrowing and heartbreaking of the victims were the children she encountered, helplessly roaming the streets in pain and dismay.

The children were heading for school on the morning of August 6 when the Enola Gay soared overhead and dropped the atomic bomb that exploded some 2,000 feet above the city, killing or destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. In the aftermath, Sadako Okuda searched for eight days for her young niece and nephew in the smoking ruins, in a place that can only be described as “a scar that must have been made by the fingernail of the devil himself.” Mothers and grandparents desperately searched for lost children, wounded children cared for one another, and human beings whose flesh was as torn and burnt as their clothing displayed wisdom and grace as much as agony and distress. Okuda could do little more than offer them her compassion, tenderness, and love.

In the second part of the book, historians, medical experts and sociologists explore the background of the event and the social psychology that allowed Americans to accept this atrocity committed in their names. The official story used to justify the use of the bomb fails to match up with the facts at the time; racial prejudices were fanned into hatred and biased reporting was used to whip up a desire for revenge. The techniques are still with us and they frustrate honest citizens of a democracy as they seek to make responsible decisions.

Ronald Takaki (University of California at Berkeley, winner of the American Book Award) discusses why President Truman gave the order to drop the bomb when it was not a military necessity and shows that he was at odds with his own Secretary of War on how to deal with the Japanese.

Dr. Martin Donohoe and Dr. Catherine Thomasson (board members of Physicians for Social Responsibility) contributed to an essay outlining some of the basic medical effects of the bombing. “People and objects that were situated very close to ground zero were instantaneously vaporized.…[Farther from the epicenter,] Because of extensive burns and high fevers, victims begged and pleaded for water [which was generally unavailable].” Death came immediately for many, more slowly for others — due to uncontrolled bleeding, infections, hunger, etc. Over 200,000 Japanese civilians died as a direct result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; high rates of cancer, cataracts, birth defects and mental illness plagued those who did survive.

An eye-opening collection of facts presented by Pamela Vergun and Robert Vergun gives a broad idea of how and why President Truman, the US Air Force and others sought to mislead the American public about Hiroshima, first suggesting (falsely) that it was a military base and then delaying and diluting reports of the civilian casualties. Thinking about the Iraq War and evidence that America plans to attack Iran, they observe that “conformity, prejudice, and the tendency to justify the use of militarily unnecessary and inhumane aggression in times of war are powerful social forces that have affected public opinion and policy decisions. Understanding these connections is essential because similar social forces continue to impact beliefs and decisions by individuals and governments.

In the words of sociologist Paul Joseph (Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Tufts University), “
The memory of Hiroshima promoted by official Washington has attempted to obliterate [these] messages, namely that war is a tragedy for human beings and that human beings can actually stand up and prevent war. Instead, by attempting to keep the public insulated from horrific imagery, most US policy-makers have encouraged Americans to forget.”

Museums aim to work against such forgetting, but as Sok-Hon Ham (Nobel Peace Prize Nominee) observes, “I have been to Hiroshima and have visited the horrible remains and relics in the museum. The feelings I experienced at that time, however, were no match for the moving emotions I experienced as I read this book.”

The combination of personal story and analysis makes this short, accessible work a definitive resource for understanding the enormity of this event. Several books about Hiroshima appeared on the 50th anniversary, about ten years ago. However, those books are gradually going out of print. Even at a time of heightened international concern regarding nuclear proliferation, we are losing access to the memories of the survivors of nuclear attacks. The US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused unspeakable devastation, yet our collective view of this catastrophic event was shaped by government “spin,” and the memory has faded over time. The testimony in these pages, and the realization that Washington frankly abused the public’s trust, add up to a wake-up call as America debates how best to defend its national interests while acting as a responsible global citizen.


Introduction

To understand the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, few things are more powerful than first-hand accounts. In the case of A Dimly Burning Wick, the overwhelming horror accompanies uplifting moments of hope, generosity, and caring that have the power to lead us further from nuclear weapons and war.

To understand the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, few things are more powerful than first-hand accounts. In the case of A Dimly Burning Wick, the overwhelming horror accompanies uplifting moments of hope, generosity, and caring that have the power to lead us further from nuclear weapons and war.

Many people around the world and Americans in particular have never been to a war zone; very few who are alive now have actually witnessed the devastation caused by a nuclear bomb. This book will help bring to the reader a more realistic understanding and abhorrence of the tools of war, above all nuclear weapons. All of us, I believe, have the opportunity and duty to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. Bombs — even “only” conventional ones — not only kill and maim but also destroy a society’s infrastructure, its hospitals, bridges, businesses, and schools. Their use runs the risk of creating failed states.

When such undiscriminating weapons are used, civilians of the targeted societies are alienated and become more militant. As we enter the 21st century, approximately 90% of the casualties (killed or wounded) in war are civilians. This statistic, which shows that war is targeting not soldiers but rather other adults and children, should help all of us to resist governments’ use of war as a foreign policy strategy — it is those of us who are not soldiers who are most likely to die as the result of war. There is no glory in “shock and awe”; we have only to look at Afghanistan and Iraq to see this. How can we avoid this type of warfare from this point forward, whether carried out by nations or by individuals taking up weapons?

My perspective as a physician helps me to see the parallels between war and what we conventionally think of as disease. I view war as a disease to be prevented, and the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II emerged as a promising tool to prevent this disease. Yet, prevention also requires that nations respect and strengthen international law and truly commit to the use of peacekeeping forces when needed. In addition, the prevention of war, like any disease, requires the world community to address the root causes: conditions such as poverty, inequality, and the scarcity of valuable resources such as water, oil, and farmland — the unmet needs of people. It also requires us to build peace by using nonviolence and cooperation as organizing principles. In first-world countries in particular, the prevention of war requires the facilitation of a more responsible and sometimes circumspect media, and attention to accurate portrayals of opponents, rather than the prevalent tendency to demonize the enemy. In collusion with the media, many governments (including the US) keep the experiences and pictures of war from reaching the average citizen. This allows governments to make war seem justified and hide the humanity of those hurt by war.

There are more effective ways to achieve foreign and domestic policy goals than aggressive military action. Unfortunately, some leaders currently suggest that being the first in a conflict to use nuclear weapons is a “legitimate” approach. Some senior NATO military leaders are now advocating this position; for example, they propose exploding nuclear weapons on a country to stop it from continuing to build nuclear weapons….

From the Foreword by
Catherine Thomasson, MD
Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility


Table of Contents
Foreword 1In the Beginning 9 If There Had Been No War… 15The Big Brother and Little Sister Who Waited 19Where Has Yuuichi Gone? 29Masako-chan,
Foreword 1
In the Beginning 9
If There Had Been No War… 15
The Big Brother and Little Sister Who Waited 19
Where Has Yuuichi Gone? 29
Masako-chan, Who Couldn’t See 33
The Boy Who Went Beddy-Bye with His Mommy 41
My Mother Wears Glasses Too 53
Best Friends Forever 65
Insanity and Greed 73
What Purpose Do Children Serve? 79
Waiting at the Foot of the Bridge 85
Bring Yuri-chan Too 93
As Long as the War Ends, It’s All Right If We Lose 101
Even Now the Memories of That Time 111
Restoring Faith 123
But They Said They’d Only Be Gone One Night 127
The Spirits That Haunt Us All 135
The Years Before and After the Bombing 139
My Life Before the Bombing 139
The War Comes to an End 141
Life After the War 141
Remarks by a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 145
Sadako’s Experience and the Insights of Historical Research and Social Psychology 147
Remembering Hiroshima 153
A Lesson from Hiroshima 159
A Brief Summary of the Medical Impacts of Hiroshima 163
Understanding Hiroshima — Personal and Policy Lessons to Take into the Future 169
The Background — Troubling Thoughts and Vocal Support 169
Conformity and Momentum — No Turning Back 172
Justification and Cognitive Dissonance 174
Cognitive Dissonance and the Search for the Highest Estimate 176
Aggression — The Move Toward Making Everyone Into Enemy Combatants 179
Propaganda — The Construction and Maintenance of Prejudice 182
The Influence of Cognitive Dissonance — The Past and Future 184
Acknowledgements 187
More Information

“This memoir is a moving and powerful reminder that there are innocent people—not numbers or kill ratios—on the receiving end of nuclear weapons. Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, A Dimly Burning Wick is a vivid reminder that the abolition of nuclear weapons is the most effective step toward human security.”

Martin J. Sherwin, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer and Professor of English and American History at...

“This memoir is a moving and powerful reminder that there are innocent people—not numbers or kill ratios—on the receiving end of nuclear weapons. Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, A Dimly Burning Wick is a vivid reminder that the abolition of nuclear weapons is the most effective step toward human security.”

Martin J. Sherwin, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer and Professor of English and American History at Tufts University, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies

 

“What a powerful scholarly and moral statement! Here is a grim reminder that the U.S. was the first nation to deploy the atomic bomb as a weapon of mass destruction. The ghastly atomic attacks on Japan did not have to happen. In fact, General Douglas MacArthur stated that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was not a military necessity. Why, then, was this terrible new weapon used? Vergun's study offers answers, but also lets the victims of the atomic bombings speak for themselves. Told from the bottom-up and in their own words, their accounts of their "lived" experiences are vivid, detailed, and searing. Their memories can guide us in today's fearful world, bristling with nuclear weapons.”

Ronald Takaki, Historian and Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Author of Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb and Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II

 

“For many people, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima brings to mind a towering mushroom cloud and Colonel Tibbets waving from the cockpit of the Enola Gay. Better that those images be replaced by some of the heart-wrenching scenes of human suffering readers will encounter in Sadako Okuda's memoir. One of the most valuable parts of the book is the supporting chapter by Dr. Pamela Vergun that asks us to consider how decisions like the one to obliterate Hiroshima are made--and why so many of us feel compelled to defend those decisions on moral grounds.

“A very impressive book.”

Leonard S. Newman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Area Director, Social Psychology Program, Syracuse University, Author of Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust

 

“The story of the children of Hiroshima in A Dimly Burning Wick is strikingly parallel to the story of the Bikini islanders who left their homeland sixty two years ago to allow the US to conduct its nuclear weapon tests. The nuclear tests devastated the islands and contaminated the islands with high level radioactive materials. The entire population has been severely affected by radiation-induced illnesses and many have since died. The US promised to clear their homeland but have not done so. In fact, the US has miserably failed to provide aide and support for years. The Bikini islanders are asking the US to provide fair compensation and justice to these nuclear victims. The story of the children of Hiroshima is indeed quite compelling and sad, very similar to the Bikini islanders.”

Senator Kessai Note, President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, 2000 to 2008

 

“Her voice of hope and expectation in the midst of despair helps us see the possibility of using Hiroshima as a more universal symbol, as an icon whose memory inspires an ambitious arms control agenda with the ultimate goal of abolishing nuclear weapons…. Hiroshima could become a symbol of globalization that would be at least as powerful as the Nike swoosh mark or the Golden Arches of McDonalds…. As she wanders through the terror of Hiroshima, Sadako Okuda asked why she should live. As we read her powerful account of what happened, we should all be grateful that she did.”

Paul Joseph, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program Tufts University, Author of Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful? and Peace Politics: The United States Between the Old and New World Orders, from “Remembering Hiroshima,” in A Dimly Burning Wick

 

“I have been to Hiroshima and have visited the horrible remains and relics in the museum. The feelings I experienced at that time, however, were no match for the moving emotions I experienced as I read this book. The true essence of what took place when the bomb was dropped is not adequately revealed by the relics and remains one finds in a museum. It is exposed through the eyes of the author that can capture its spirit, the heart that embraces it, and the gentle, soul-filled breath that cries or shares brief moments of happiness with those who were there. Through the eyes of Sadako Okuda, one can capture its spirit.”

Sok-Hon Ham, Nonviolence and Human Rights Advocate, Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, from the Foreword to the first Korean Edition of A Dimly Burning Wick

 

“[T]here is, flowing at the very bottom of the hell described in this book, a powerful wellspring of life… If all the peoples of the Earth… are made in God’s image, then what person would not cry when reading this book? Indeed, who would still see different races, countries, or religions after reading this?... The historic drama of Hiroshima shows how God lifts up the weak and shames the powerful.”

Hyung Kyoon Cho, Translator of the First Korean Edition, from his Afterword

 

“One of the most important moments of history was when Japan was bombed and World War II was ended. Never before have I read a book of what it was like to be a survivor in search of family members that hopefully had survived. What a story! Thank you, Mrs. Okuda, for sharing your experience with the world today. God loves you and so do I!”

Dr. Robert H. Schuller, Founding Pastor, Crystal Cathedral

 

“This book has brought back to me in vivid truth what August 6 meant to me as a child. On that day in 1946, the first anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I was not quite 13 years old and was preparing to become a Bar Mitzvah — one commanded by God to act as a mature and decent human being. I was a camper at a Jewish day camp in Baltimore, and editor of its mimeographed weekly newspaper. I wrote my first serious article for that mimeo paper, saying that obviously Hiroshima taught us that we must end war. All these years and failures later, I hope that A Dimly Burning Wick will help us bring that memory and that covenant to the foreground of our lives.

“On the first and on the fiftieth anniversaries of the bomb, August 6 fell on the fast day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the ancient destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonian and Roman empires. These days, like August 6,  remind us that just as the sacred microcosm of the world, the Temple, was destroyed by arrogant military might of an arrogant empire, so too might the earth as a whole — our sacred macrocosm — be destroyed unless we learn to control our arrogant urges to domination and violence.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director, The Shalom Center (www.shalomctr.org); Co-author, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims

 

“Historical accounts of war often strive to give a sense that destruction was necessary. In the case of World War II, the death tolls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the millions of other lives lost, are explained as unfortunate but necessary. A Dimly Burning Wick leads us to question that perspective, suggesting that the loss of life was not only tragic but unnecessary. As scholars such as Paul Joseph, Ronald Takaki, and Pam and Rob Vergun argue at the end of the book, the decision to bomb Hiroshima did not contribute to the war's end. As such, the catastrophic loss of life intimately outlined in A Dimly Burning Wick becomes all the more tragic.

Ann Hironaka, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine, Author of Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War

 

“In reflecting on the damage humanity has done in the twentieth century, there are two higher purposes: to remind ourselves of the damage we are capable of inflicting and to celebrate the resilience of the survivor. Hiroshima will remain one of the darkest and most painful days in human history. A Dimly Burning Wick makes it possible to tell the story of this day to our children, without turning away from it. The book’s drawings are a powerful record of the pain. Inherently, A Dimly Burning Wick celebrates the resilience of our rising to a renewed understanding of our own accountability.”

Rabbi Gary Schoenberg, Gesher

 

“The illustrations by Mia Nolting are elegant and poignant — drawing the reader even further into the horror and beauty of the narrative.”

Martin French, Assistant Professor in Illustration and Chair of the Illustration Program, Pacific Northwest College of Art and renowned Illustrator

 

“The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 resulted in the unspeakable loss of 210,000 lives; thousands more succumbed to radiation poisoning in the years that followed, and others were maimed for life. Just as heinous as the decision to cause such unfathomable pain and death was the sentiment in other countries that these actions were justifiable. Sadako Teiko Okuda lived right outside of Hiroshima when the bombs were deployed. She traveled for eight days in the ruins of Hiroshima in search of missing family members. A Dimly Burning Wick is Okuda’s haunting depiction of this journey and the suffering she encountered along the way. It aptly removes any arms-length historical justification of these events and brings the reader face-to-face with the physical and emotional anguish of war.

“Okuda’s tale was published in Japanese in 1979, and was introduced to Korea in 1983. We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Pamela B. Vergun for bringing Okuda’s words to us in English in 2008. Her skillful accounting of this story allows us to better understand the consequences of nuclear warfare. The author writes, “…I witnessed firsthand the cruelty and ugliness of war, as families were torn apart, children were orphaned, and human beings were reduced to shells of their former selves. In the wake of the bomb, human dignity had been shredded and I was just a helpless bystander.” The atrocities inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have retreated to the safety net of our blurred collective memory, neatly categorized as an event that happened long ago in a distant place. Yet it hasn’t been that long, and this wartime tool could be employed again.

A Dimly Burning Wick should be required reading in every school. It begs the audience to consider the innocents caught in the trajectory of war … it cries out for the elimination of barbaric methods to solve global differences … and in its noble prose, devoid of hatred yet brimming with sadness, it crystallizes the importance of peace.”

Jo-Ann Moss, Editor, Raving Dove Literary Journal

 

“For decades, Americans have been told that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a military necessity to reduce our casualties at the end of World War II. As Americans come to terms with the fact that the bombing was unnecessary, we must also confront the painful realization that the suffering of children like those encountered by Okuda was avoidable. Vergun’s translation of Okuda’s account of the experiences of defenseless children serves as a powerful reminder of the human misery imposed by a government intent on developing a weapon of annihilation. The horrors inflicted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki continued to play-out in the Marshall Islands, in communities downwind from testing sites in the United States, and in indigenous communities considered expendable by the U.S. Government. Okuda’s voice increases the volume of the growing chorus of protest against the continued presence of nuclear weapons.”

Holly M. Barker, M.A., Ph.D., Former Advisor to the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Guest Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Washington, Author of Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World

 

“As the hibakusha generation begins to disappear, Sadako Okuda's memoir of Hiroshima at Ground Zero in the wake of the atomic bomb is a clarion call to remember the human cost of the final acts of the Pacific War. And the threat to humanity that resides both in the continued atomic arms race and the unbridled use of air power against civilian populations that has been a continuing legacy of that war.”

Mark Selden, Ph.D., Historian, Cornell University. Coordinator of Japan Focus, Coauthor of The Atomic Bomb: Voices From Hiroshima and Nagasaki

 

“To understand the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, few things are more powerful than first-hand accounts. In the case of A Dimly Burning Wick, the overwhelming horror accompanies uplifting moments of hope, generosity, and caring that have the power to lead us further from nuclear weapons and war. All of us, I believe, have the opportunity and duty to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons [and I ask you to join] former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz [in calling] for a bold new vision: a world free of nuclear weapons.

“As we move farther away in history from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is human nature to want to forget the horrific effects of the nuclear bombs dropped on those cities. This book brings the past directly back in view and puts human faces on the appalling deaths.

“In this global age, we must recognize our interdependence if we are to survive. Young and old, we all hold the responsibility to bear witness to the voices of the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just as the children sought to keep the vulnerable flickering flames of the people they loved alight, so can we follow their example in protecting others and in doing so protect our earth and its invaluable resources. I am honored to write a foreword for this remarkable book. My hope for you is that reading this book will move you to help achieve one of the greatest civil rights goals imaginable, the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

 

Catherine Thomasson, MD, Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, from her Foreword to A Dimly Burning Wick


Reviews
Japan Focus | More »
Raving Dove Literary Journal: Required Reading | More »
Leonard S. Newman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Area Director, Social Psychology Program, Syracuse University, Author of Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust | More »
Book News | More »
Metro Spirit, Augusta, GA: 10/29/2008 - 11/04/2008 | More »

Pages 202
Year: 2008
LC Classification: D767.25.H6O4613
Dewey code: 940.54--2521954092—dc22
BISAC: HIS027030 HISTORY / Military / Nuclear Warfare
BISAC: HIS021000 HISTORY / Asia / Japan
BISAC: POL034000 POLITICAL SCIENCE / Peace
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-560-7
Price: USD 21.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-561-4
Price: USD 29.95
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