Interview with Misaki Katayama

At the heart of our project is our interview with Misaki Katayama, a third-generation survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. For years, Katayama has been involved in antinuclear activism and other awareness-raising activities surrounding the dangers of nuclear science. We were fortunate enough to be put into contact with Katayama through the UTokyo workshops that our professor, Professor Ryo Morimoto, attended at Princeton. After hearing word of our project, Katayama offered to be interviewed, providing us with the following insightful account, offering a perspective not often heard by Princeton students.


We believe that the nature of how readily this interview was organized by an affected party, in conjunction with the difficulty we experienced trying to find interviewees among the Princeton faculty, speaks volumes about our topic. While we reached out to a handful of professors in relevant fields, as well as multiple librarians, we were unable to find someone who was willing and knew enough about the subject matter to be interviewed. The fact that Katayama was the only one we contacted who was willing to speak with us is telling. As Princeton leaves these tiles in the archives and refrains from fully understanding their significance, we should remember that it should not be the duty of the survivors to speak out and educate: it should be a joint effort of the global community.




TRIGGER WARNING: The following interview contains information relating to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its ramifications. As such, it contains graphic and sensitive material that may be upsetting to some audiences.




Q. To start, could you briefly tell us a little bit about yourself (for example, where you grew up, what your childhood was like, what you study, etc.)?

A. I grew up on a small island called Innoshima in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. From junior high school, I went to the Japanese mainland and lived in a dormitory.


Q. You mentioned that you have been involved in activities relating to A-bomb issues since

high school. Can you describe these activities?

A. My grandparents were atomic bomb survivors, so I am a third generation A-bomb survivor. Listening to my grandparents' stories, I learned the awfulness of nuclear weapons and strongly felt that we must never allow the same thing to happen again. For this reason, from my first year of high school, I collected signatures in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (the hypocenter of the atomic bomb) calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and submitted them to the Conference on Disarmament at the European Headquarters of the United Nations. These signatures are now officially recognized by the UN and will be kept permanently. It is also placed in the exhibition section on the atomic bombings. I have also organized meetings throughout Japan to hear testimonies of A-bomb survivors and survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor with high school students from Hawaii, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in cooperation with the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii.

At university, I studied how to pass on the memory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the perspective of educational psychology. I am now researching the educational effects of the digitalization of A-bomb testimonies, as the number of people who can actually tell their experiences of the bombings is decreasing due to the aging of the population.


Q. Can you recall when you were first told about the Hiroshima bombing? Who did you hear

this from and on what occasion?

A. I remember when I was in the early grades of elementary school. I don't think there was a specific trigger; I think it just became a part of my grandmother's life.

My grandmother made offerings at the Buddhist altar every day without fail and prayed for a long time.

On August 6 (when the atomic bomb was dropped), she would leave home early in the morning to go to the hypocenter and return late at night. Seeing her suffering, I realized the power of the A-bomb, which continues to affect her strongly even after more than 70 years.

I have an older brother who is close to my age. He was interested in battles, wars, tanks, etc. when he was about 6 years old and would ask my grandmother about war stories when she would tuck him in at night. I was listening to her stories with him.

My grandmother would also often tell me stories about the atomic bombing, triggered by the news and war specials on TV. Many Hibakusha hesitate to talk about their memories because of the grotesqueness of the bombing, but I think my grandmother's sense of duty to tell her story was stronger than her resistance. The skin on people's arms hung down to the ground, and they burned black as they walked around screaming, saying many times, “I am really scared.”


Q. What are students in Hiroshima taught about the nuclear history and impact of the atomic

bomb beyond Hiroshima? What are the overall perspectives on the event among the general public in Japan?

A. Since there was no clear research on this question, I conducted a survey of students who visited Hiroshima last summer to learn about the atomic bombing. The main part of the peace study in Hiroshima consisted of a visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, listening to A-bomb testimonies from hibakusha, and a visit to the cenotaphs in Peace Memorial Park (including the Atomic Bomb Dome). Most of the students (about 80%) who had these experiences deepened their understanding of the tragedy of the atomic bombing. They also say that they hope it will never happen again. Some students were also interested in the fact that there are victims of nuclear tests overseas. Some students also questioned why the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They did not seem to have a satisfactory answer to that question. They also questioned the common American narrative that the atomic bombs were dropped to end the war, asking, “Was it really necessary?” On the other hand, Japanese peace education does not teach much about Japan's aggression against Southeast Asia during the Pacific War. Academics say that we need to learn about the history of aggression, rather than focusing only on the damage.


Q. How do other students perceive this subject matter? Do all students seem to care about A-

bomb related issues to this extent, or is your passion for the topic unique?

A. There are many people with the same interest in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as education about the atomic bombing is embedded everywhere. My high school students' activities also had many collaborators.

On the other hand, in Tokyo, the capital of Japan (I went to the University of Tokyo from Hiroshima), very few people have a similar interest in my research. They rarely deny it and understand its importance, but there are not many people who want to collaborate.

In the Watanabe Laboratory, where I am currently working, there are many students who have similar interests and many people who share them.


Q. Can you describe how your status as a third-generation A-bomb survivor influences your

day-to-day life? Your life more generally?

A. Physical damage caused by the atomic bombings is often inherited. Therefore, I am concerned about whether I myself am susceptible to cancer, and whether I will be adversely affected by pregnancy, etc.

In addition, although it is less common now, Hibakusha are sometimes discriminated against due to misunderstandings. A certain number of people believe that exposure to the atomic bombs causes cancer and other physical damage, and that it is “contagious.” There are also many who hide the fact that they are Hibakusha because they think it will damage their family's reputation. This misconception is especially strong in rural areas. My family is also in the countryside, and my paternal family reacted strongly when I disclosed that my maternal grandparents had been exposed to the atomic bomb. They said they did not want to be thought of as “unclean,” and I was deeply hurt by the discrimination, even though my mother and I had done nothing wrong.


Q. Are there any art pieces or keepsakes that memorialize the Hiroshima bombing that you

particularly connect with? Can you tell us about these art pieces or keepsakes and how

you feel about them?

A. I particularly remember the A-bombed Aogiri tree (a tree that survived the bombing near the hypocenter), which became famous with a woman named Suzuko Numata, who was severely injured by the bomb, lost her fiancé, and had one of her legs amputated without anesthesia (the woman in the movie “Ningen wo Kaese”, famous for her 10-foot-tall movement). It is said that when she lost the will to live and was walking around contemplating suicide, she saw a blue-green alga sprouting despite being burnt by the bomb and decided to live once again.

It is known that the aogiri gave many A-bomb survivors hope for life. Its seeds and branches have been donated and are growing in many places. These are not relics that have been left injured and time stopped. It is a relic that "grows." It is a very interesting legacy of changing forms.

Other interesting artifacts are the burnt lunch boxes and burnt tricycles in the A-bomb museum. These remind us that at the time of the atomic bombing, there were ordinary, everyday things like the ones we are spending now. The cobblestone pavement in the museum, with its shadow burnt into the ground, is also shocking.


Q. Did you know about Princeton’s involvement in the making of the bomb? Does reading our synopsis change your perception of Princeton and its influences?

I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about that fact. Einstein's involvement in the development of the atomic bomb is well known, but I know little about its development at Princeton University. Professor Morimoto showed me newspapers of the successful development of the atomic bomb at that time, and they seemed to be delighted. It made me think about the development of science and technology and how to use them.

On the other hand, I thought it was very wonderful that Professor Morimoto and you are doing this project at Princeton, which has such a history. I support this project from the bottom of my heart because I think it is important in terms of preventing the same damage from occurring and also in terms of stopping science from going out of control.


Q. How do you imagine the bombed tiles were initially meant to be kept and used at a place

like Princeton, where there was direct involvement in creating the atomic bomb?

A. I believe it will be displayed as a warning. I hope it will be used in a meaningful way to rethink the way science has evolved for the worse and triggered an arms race. I also think it needs to be used as an opportunity to think about the specific damage that would occur if nuclear weapons were manufactured and actually used.


Q. What do you hope the future of Princeton-Hiroshima student relations could look like?

A. I hope that the relationship will confirm each other's strong will that nuclear weapons must never be used on the earth again. We should never be enemies, but cooperate with each other to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.




From Katayama’s responses, we can see the impact the bombing had—and continues to have—on its survivors in Hiroshima, in both physical and cultural ways, spanning across generations. The existence of the Japanese word, “hibakusha,” meaning “survivor of the bomb,” perfectly encapsulates the degree to which the bombing affected Japanese society. The continued suffering that Katayama saw in her grandmother, and the discrimination towards hibakusha that she describes, are examples of the long-term effects of the bombing. 


Katayama’s accounts of the reactions and attitudes of other people in Japan describe the issue of how survivors and those closest to them are often the only ones bearing the responsibility of remembering traumatic events. Katayama also points out that while those from Hiroshima and Nagaskai—who likely have some familial ties to the bombing and receive more education on the bombings—are interested in bringing attention to this issue, those who are not in that position are not as eager to collaborate on antinuclear or related awareness-raising projects. While unaffected parties often recognize the importance of such events, most do not go further than expressing sympathy.


Katayama’s mention of the aogiri tree that survived the bombing despite being close to the hypocenter ties back to another point of focus in our project, which is the importance of art in remembering and healing after traumatic events. The aogiri tree continues growing and producing more trees, continuously changing forms and moving forward despite the damage it sustained from the bombing. This is a particularly strong message for survivors, who are encouraged to also move forward as a result.


We found Katayama’s approval of our project incredibly encouraging. Just as Katayama says, we need to educate the public about these topics and reevaluate the direction of scientific developments in order to prevent atrocities like the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from happening again. As a final point to remember for this journey forward, Katayama also mentions that academics often stress the need to learn about the history of aggression instead of solely focusing on the resulting damages. In other words, while remembering the tragedies of the past is paramount, we must be careful to go even further than this. Instead of only looking back, we must also look forward, studying how these atrocities came to fruition so that we may prevent history from repeating itself.