Mother covered us with her body to protect us

Isao Harimoto.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

Seventy years ago, Japan was devastated by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet Union's entry into the war. That led to Japan's surrender, and the Japanese people were in an extremely wretched condition after the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945.

What did people do and think of in the face of such wretchedness?

In this first instalment, former professional baseball player Isao Harimoto from Hiroshima describes that unforgettable summer.

My parents came to Japan from Gyeongsangnam-do in Korea, which was a Japanese colony at the time. I was born the following year, 1940, in Hiroshima. It's like Korea is my birth parent and Japan is my foster parent.

Human beings have intelligence. They say there's nothing we can't work out if we back down when we can and talk to each other, so why do we wage war? I don't understand politics, but if you fight it just hurts both sides. The supreme example of that is war. I'll never forget "that summer" when I was 5 years old.

I was just about to leave my house when it happened. My house was less than two kilometers from the hypocenter of the bomb blast, but Mt. Hiji, about 70 meters above sea level, sheltered us.

Our house was destroyed and the first thing I remember after regaining consciousness was the red colour of my mother's blood. She was covering us with her body to protect us.

She told me to escape ahead of her, and I ran to a vineyard.

The smell of people's flesh burning was intense. Many people died after they jumped screaming into the Enkogawa river nearby. Voices continued moaning throughout the night.

After about two days, my older sister, who had gone missing while working on Mt. Hiji, was brought to our house on a stretcher. She had been identified by the name tag on her clothes.

My kind, beautiful older sister who I loved so much was in such horrible condition I couldn't recognise her face. "I'm hot, it hurts," she said.

I picked a grape and brought it to her mouth. I don't remember if any juice came out, but my sister said faintly, "Thank you, Isao-chan." My mother tore up the chogori she was wearing and worked night and day to cool my sister. I think she lived about a day and a half.

Everyone talks about 70 years, but the war still isn't over for us. That's because we've carried it with us for 70 years. We can't forget, not until we wither away.

The people who died are not "victims." They died in place of us. I don't want people to think that it has nothing to do with them.

In war, you know who you're fighting, so you feel that much more anger. After I retired from professional baseball, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum twice, but my hands got sweaty and shook and I couldn't go in. It wasn't just sorrow, but anger and hate that welled up.

How could they put us in this state, and by such means? Killing so many people in our place. The people who did it probably had their reasons. "If we hadn't done it, more people would have died," or something like that. The people it was done to can't forget.

In 2006, I got a letter from a primary school girl who'd seen a newspaper interview I did headlined, "I don't want to remember Aug. 6." She said she'd been scared of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum but had gone to visit it.

I was embarrassed when I heard that, thinking how can an actual hibakusha not go? So I went to the Hiroshima museum for the first time. I sent my admission ticket to the little girl.

Human beings are still fighting wars somewhere in the world. If they could go to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums and put themselves in our place, think how they would feel if this happened to the daughters and sons they love, the fathers and mothers they respect. I think wars would stop.

Looking back, I think it was baseball that saved my life, and the strength of my mother and older brother, who supported me in my efforts.

When I was 4, the year before I lost my older sister in the atomic bombing, a three-wheeled truck backed into me.

I fell into a fire and was severely burned. The damage to my face and chest healed, but the ring finger and little finger on my right hand were burned and completely fused together. My thumb and index finger were permanently bent.

My uncle said that when he reported the incident to the police, they said, "You guys are Korean, aren't you?" and wouldn't help us. My uncle was so angry he was shaking, he said.

After the war, my father died after returning to Korea.

A bone from a tachiuo cutlassfish pierced his throat and tore his esophagus.

What my mother must have felt. Living in a place where she didn't speak the language and ravaged by grief, she raised three children.

She made food for factory workers and others in a six-tatami-mat hut with a galvanized iron roof, at the foot of a bridge in the burned-out aftermath of the atomic bomb.

She walked to the black market near the station to save the bus fare.

I remember my mother's hands were like ice when she returned in the snow. From morning until night, I never saw her sleeping.

My older brother started work as a taxi driver and when I was admitted to the baseball powerhouse Naniwa Shogyo High School in 1956, he sent me half his wages - ¥10,000 (S$112) - every month.

I was so short of money that I had to choose between eating some bread or going to the sento public bath, but my feelings for my family fueled my desire. I overcame the problems with my right hand by shifting to left-handed throwing.

At this time, however, something happened that made me think for the first time, "This is discrimination." Before the National High School Baseball Tournament, I was the only one blamed for an act of violence in the baseball club and not allowed to appear in the tournament as punishment. Many of my teammates would probably have testified to my innocence, but there wasn't even an investigation.

My dream of playing in the tournament at Koshien Stadium as the No. 4 hitter was destroyed, and I was so upset I thought about jumping in front of a train. However, I heard my mother's voice coming from somewhere.

What saved me as I was falling into despair was a tour to South Korea by an all-star team of ethnic Korean high school players in Japan. I stepped for the first time onto the soil of my native land, and was moved by the Arirang folk song that welcomed us.

I recovered my passion for baseball and when I returned to Japan, a scout for a professional team was waiting for me.

In my 22 years as a professional baseball player, I set a record of 3,085 hits. And I worked hard to help found the professional baseball league in South Korea (Hashimoto was later awarded the Order of Civil Merit in South Korea, equivalent to the First Order of Merit in Japan).

My last dream is to create an all-star Asia team with members of different nationalities from an Asian league, and have it play against an all-star US team.

We have a responsibility to make the countries we've inherited better and pass them on to the next generation. That includes passing on the anger we've held toward war for 70 years. We can also say this about the relationship between Japan and South Korea, which is why we must get along.

That is my heartfelt wish. Interaction continues in the world of baseball.