Fifty years on, a poet relives his horror in Hiroshima

Kenan Malik meets a survivor of the 'procession of ghosts' who is still healing himself through words
Click to follow
Lighted paper lanterns:

Hiroshima rivers too crowded

to float them

THE POETRY of Yasuhiko Shigemoto is blessed with a wonderful lightness and delicacy of touch. Yet it also tells of a darkness and a terror that few of us can comprehend.

Shigemoto is a hibakusha, a survivor of the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. All his poetry is an exploration of that singular event. This week, on its 50th anniversary, he is in Britain to give readings of his poetry and to preach peace.

Shigemoto was 14 when the bomb fell. Like many other survivors, he can recall with startling clarity the exact moment it happened. "I was standing under a bridge over the Yamate river. I was just taking off my undershirt, to get into my working clothes. Half of my belly was exposed. Suddenly I saw a flash to the south and I felt a violent heat. My belly was covered in blisters. I was blown down by the blast. When I raised my head, all I could see was bicycles scattered around me."

Shigemoto was lucky. Hiroshima schoolchildren had been divided into work details to help preparations for a possible Allied invasion. One group was demolishing houses in the city centre to create firebreaks in case of incendiary bomb attacks. All were killed in the A-bomb blast.

Shigemoto was in the second group, working in the hills at the edge of the city, digging underground caverns to relocate Hiroshima's factories. "I suppose I am fortunate to have been where I was that day," he says. "But sometimes I ask myself why I am still living 50 years later, when my friends have died. I still see them in my dreams."

Within an hour of the explosion there was what Shigemoto calls "a procession of ghosts" as many grievously injured people started appearing from the city centre. "Their skin was hanging off their bodies like tissue paper. But most horrible was the way they walked, so slowly and with their arms stretched out so that their skin would not stick together, walking with no purpose and with nowhere to go."

The bodies of the injured piled up everywhere. "They were crawling with maggots," Shigemoto remembers. "The flies laid their eggs in the living bodies."

Five days after the blast he finally walked back into the city centre with a friend. "We walked along the river and all we could see were dead bodies, countless dead bodies on the river banks and floating in the river. The fish were still swimming but the people were dead."

Hiroshima was famous for its clear water, so clear that the best sake in Japan was said to come from the city. The contrast between the purity of the water and the stench of death is a motif that still haunts his poetry.

Post-war Japan, says Shigemoto, was a world of crime, disorder and anarchy. Encouraged by his father, he eventually resumed his schoolwork, went on to study languages at university and became an English teacher.

"My father had been very critical of the military government during the war. He told me to learn English, which had been banned by the authorities because it was the language of the enemy, so I would know better what was going on in the world."

For Shigemoto, writing became a means of coming to terms with the experience of Hiroshima. "Writing is a kind of healing," he says. Eventually he came to write poetry, in haiku.

Haiku is a traditional Japanese form, usually in three parts and with 17 syllables. Its power and beauty arises from the evocation in each brief verse of a single riveting image. Ten years ago the British poet James Kirkup came across Shigemoto's work and encouraged him to publish it. The result is his book, My Haiku of Hiroshima. The images here are angry and sorrowful, sometimes even humorous, but always moving.

Shigemoto fears that, 50 years on, the memories, and with them the lessons, of Hiroshima are fading. "Even in Japan," he says, "many people do not understand about Hiroshima. There is much prosperity in Japan today but many people have forgotten the past. It is important never to forget the past, so we can build the future differently."

He has come to Britain as a guest of the No More Hiroshimas campaign, to give readings from his book, to speak about his own experiences and to warn against the continuing dangers of nuclear war. "Do you know what my dream is?" he asks. "I want all children to be taught peace studies at school so they don't go through what I went through. That is my dream."

nMy Haiku of Hiroshima can be obtained from the No More Hiroshimas Campaign, 0171-278 9908.

A survivor's verses

The sunset glow -


as if still burning


How freely

butterflies are flying about

in the A-bomb Dome!


The person's shadow

still on the stone stair,

Hiroshima Day