The Sword of Damocles, Part II

At five years of age, Kikuko Otake, along with her two brothers and young mother, survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan living just a little more than one mile from the hypocenter. In the first half of her book, Masako’s Story, she shares her mother’s account.

“The rain soaked us to the skin.
You began to shake,
And grew pale.
Yet all that I could do was to hold your hand with my injured left hand,
And to hold onto the hand of your younger brother Koji with my right hand,
And force you to keep going.
Along the way,
You shook more and more violently,
Your teeth chattering uncontrollably,
And you finally fainted, and fell against me;

“ ‘Ah, Kikuko is going to die.’
That’s what I thought at that moment.

“But you are alive and well now.”

In the uncomplicated language of free-verse, her words take on a vital immediacy.

“Because mother is talking to me,” Kikuko told me, “she is talking to the reader. Every single word is coming through her mind and going into the reader’s mind directly.”

In the book’s second half, Kukuko tells her own story.

“Every year on August 6, morning,
We put out our father’s picture in the center of the tokonoma, (alcove)
Mother sits before us, three children,
We, behind.

“At 8:15 a.m.,
At the tolling of the Hiroshima Peace Bell,
Its mournful tone broadcast through the radio,
We sit in silence for one minute. …

“Then,
Without speaking,
She stands.
“And we return to our morning chores,
Just like a normal morning.
Yet we know that after 8:15,
This will not be an ordinary day.”

Kikuko only remembers a few things from that day: the blood covered ground; people bandaged from head to toe. Except, those weren’t bandages, they were third and fourth degree burns covering most of their bodies. Kikuko’s imagery is more vivid and powerful than any black and white photo.

“Please don’t skin tomatoes,
“By plunging them into boiling water,
And then slipping off their skins.

“On the day they dropped the Bomb,
Seared by several thousand degrees of flash heat,
Men, women, and children turned to red lumps of raw flesh,
Their skins sloughing from their bodies
Just like how you now skin those tomatoes.”

Kikuko told me that she “wanted to tell the people of the world to know what happened, because most detailed testimony by survivors has been lost” due largely because most of the survivors suffered from what is now called PTSD, Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder. In asking her mother about the details from that time, Kikuko said, “I wanted to write from an internal sense of what happened.”

But there was a larger purpose behind Masako’s Story.

“Everybody in the world should know,
How we were killed by the atomic bombs,
How we are still suffering physically and psychologically
From the after effects of radiation.

“Awareness of the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Is the only way,
To prevent us from using nuclear weapons again.”

Kikuko reminds me of another such woman who shares her story of horror. In the remarkable documentary tak for alt(Danish meaning, Thanks for Everything) Judy Meisel shares her story of survival of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania and the Stutthof Concentration Camp in Poland. Her experiences, during and after World War II, inspired a life-long crusade for tolerance.

Both women share a passion for change. Both women remind us that the Jewish Holocaust and the nuclear holocaust should never happen again.

“Racism, bigotry,” Judy says, “it’s still happening all over the world, and we have to constantly work at it to see that this does not happen here or anywhere. We cannot afford to say, ‘What can I do? – I’m only one person?’ One person can do a lot!”

Kikuko Otake, a naturalized citizen, lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Hiroshi, a retired engineer from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. She continues to speak at High Schools, Colleges and other organizations about the nuclear threat that continues to hang over all of us like the sword of Damocles.

“Don’t you know,
If we use nuclear weapons again,
That the world would end?

“Haven’t you learned these lessons yet?

“We should never repeat the evil.”

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