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drinking with atomic bomb survivors

What I Learned Drinking With Atomic Bomb Survivors

We all have a story to tell.

Words: Ari Beser
Pictures: Ari Beser

On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the summer night was filled with the white noise of cicada as myself and my co-workers, mostly senior citizens above the age of 70, stumbled out of the closing bar onto the empty streets of the seaside village of Obama Onsen (no relation). Unbridled by the shackles of society’s norms or sobriety, the 73-year-old leader of the group, Takeshi Miyata, comfortably belted out an off-key rendition of “Cielito Lindo.” I joined, and we all laughed our way back to the hotel until it hit me. I stopped in my tracks and stared as the group kept walking.

70 years prior, my co-workers, my friends, were escaping burning wreckage, in pain, in distress. The indescribable hell that the atomic bombs transformed their cities into forever seared into their brains. 70 years prior my friends were children, fleeing an atomic bomb my grandfather, Jacob Beser, helped drop. 70 years prior, it was not possible to have a dinner and a party like this. On this night, however, we celebrated. Decades of painful work to spread the witness of nuclear war requires a proper amount of steam release.

The day before, we had commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attacks. These senior citizens spent their lives trying to forget what they saw, and had only recently taken the mantle, in their evening years, to plead with the world to listen to the story they tried so hard to forget. Those of us in the group who did not witness this event had pledged to take their baton and relay their experience to the youth we represented.

When a person becomes a symbol, something strange happens to how they are viewed in moments of humanity. Celebrities deal with this problem every day. People think they know you, or that you have to be a perfect vision of who they imagine you to be. They don’t often live up. It is an important reminder that people, as symbolic as they are, are people. The Pope has a bad night. Donald Trump farts. The Queen of England Laughs, and Atomic bomb survivors know how to party.

The next morning I woke up and felt like it had been a dream, but there were pictures, and the memory of my answer wasn’t a dream.

The survivors themselves are not just senior citizens who witnessed a long-ago occurrence. They are not just survivors. They are three dimensional, they have varying approaches to their story, they all have their own personalities. They all have their own ways of letting loose. The only thing they share are the unfinished consequences of the nuclear bombs to which they were exposed. These survivors are united by the radiation which doused their bodies and turned their own cells against them. They wait for the rest of their lives for their own radioactive time bombs to go off, or not. Because the effects are still barely understood. They are united in their desire to fight nuclear war because to this day, when a person who was exposed in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki passes away, they are added to the list of victims.

It is no secret Japanese business culture extends from the boardroom to the bar, where deals are agreed upon over drinks, the most trustworthy time to get to know a potential business partner. It is not a surprise that this same culture extends to Japan’s very active peace culture. In the world of nonprofits, nongovernment organizations, and lobbies focused on Japan’s peace clause in article 9, the very serious and well-educated diplomats, youth activists, experts, and survivors cut loose.

In these moments, I bonded with the survivors of the atomic bombs, and those exposed to nuclear tests, or Hibakusha as they are called in Japanese. I spent years working alongside them with NGOs like Peace Boat and Hibakusha Stories. We traveled the world together. They shared testimony I documented. But in between, over long nights at sea as Peace Boat’s ocean liner cruised seas, oceans and canals, we bonded. We got to know each other beyond our work, and we became as close as family. It was particularly profound for me, the grandson of someone on the planes that dropped the bombs on the very people who would call themselves my new grandparents, but that relationship didn’t just happen. Peace is built with trust, and trust is what we built in between the work.

In 2011, I began to travel to Japan to write my book, The Nuclear Family, about both sides of the atomic bombs. I was invited for Hakata Ramen at a small hole in the wall in Nakano. It was run by the charming young nephew of the legendary Sadako Sasaki — the girl who folded 1000 paper cranes to wish her leukemia away. After a meal and long discussion, and more than a few beers, Yuji got so excited he ran into the back room. He came out with a box, and opened it. Inside was a tiny paper crane and a tiny paper triangle. He took the crane out of the box and placed it into my hand. “This is the last paper crane my aunt ever folded. In 2010 I met the grandson of president Truman, Clifton Daniel, and I asked him the same question I’m about to ask you,”

“Will you work with us to send a message of peace?”

The next morning I woke up and felt like it had been a dream, but there were pictures, and the memory of my answer wasn’t a dream. I’d agreed. By the next summer, in 2012, I was back in Japan with the families of Sadako Sasaki, and President Harry Truman. We spoke in colleges, cultural centers, and even a prison. We met survivors, and their descendants. We heard their story on camera and in private. From the opposite side of the mushroom clouds, from witnesses and descendants of those intimately involved with the decision and mechanics of the bomb itself. We shared our visions for a better world. And every night, after each day’s activity ,we bonded with Sadako’s brother Masahiro and his son Yuji, who shared their grand vision — to spread Sadako’s cranes all over the world, to teach children about peace for generations.

Yuji Sasaki hands Ari Sadako’s last crane in the summer of 2011 at his former Ramen shop in Nakano, Tokyo. Yuji has since started donating his aunt’s paper cranes around the world to places in need of a symbol of peace.
Sadako’s last crane
Sadako’s last crane, and the triangle of the crane she didn’t finish before she passed away.
Tadashi Okamoto, Teruko Yahata, and Takeshi Miyata cheers over beer in a karaoke bar in Obama-onsen, Nagasaki prefecture, Japan.
Hibakusha Stories gathers for a celebration in Oslo during the week of the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in 2017.
John Legend performed God Only Knows on a piano that survived the atomic bomb at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert before launching into his greatest hits. Earlier that week at the Nobel Ceremony, he performed Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, changing the lyrics, ‘Have no fear of atomic energy for it won’t stop the time’ to, ‘We won’t kill with atomic energy we won’t let it stop the time.’
Letting loose at the after party with diplomats, activists, and the 2017 Nobel peace prize laureate ICAN.
Surrounded by nuclear guardians and joined by the Nobel Peace Prize, Ari celebrated the birthday of Hibakusha Stories co-director Robert Croonquist with an educational sail on the Hudson River.

In 2013, I was invited to document Peace Boat’s 80th voyage in 30 years. For 85 days I followed a group of atomic bomb survivors who did not know my grandfather was a crewmember on the planes that dropped both bombs until we met at the Japanese foreign ministry. Before they were to meet the minister, they had to be told the grandson of the only double crew member to drop the bombs on both cities was coming to film their journey. There was a debate among staff about when to disclose the information, and it was decided that it would be upon my introduction. This revelation could have been met with an outcry. What deception! How could you bring this person, and not tell us until the last minute? How could you put us in this position? Whether or not those feelings were felt, I will never know. But I have a feeling that if Miyata san had a problem with me, he got over it quickly. That night at the bar, he jokingly told me my “English is very good.” I instantly sensed I was being egged on, so I replied in Japanese, “Woah, I’m impressed by your natural ability to speak Japanese!” Thus solidifying our friendship.

Teruko Yahata had no reason to apologize to me, but one night over beer in the Casablanca Lounge somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, she released a burden she had apparently carried since we met. “Ari-san I have to tell you something, my uncle was one the pilots of who flew over pearl harbor, and I’m sorry because I used to be proud of him for it.” It was now the Japanese militarists she was mad at. She denounced what her government did, and tried to take responsibility for the dropping of the atomic bomb, before I realized the beer may have been giving her a little too much help. This was arguably a lot for her to make sense of, but what I realized then is that there are so many truths swirling around in this mess we call history, hardly do they align. Yahata san was a child and excited that her uncle took part in such a mission. Why shouldn’t she be? But who, from an American perspective, could understand that mentality?

Nonprofit burnout is real. Overreliance on alcohol is never encouraged. Drinking can lead to

more problems, not fewer. But in moderation, healthy breaks are crucial to keeping up the pace of fighting for a better world, in our case a world free of nuclear weapons.

Years later, the most memorable moment of the 2017 Nobel peace prize ceremony was, for me, the parties. Celebrating with my colleagues, with diplomats, with atomic bomb and test survivors who have seen the worst realize the power of the award the campaign received. Wins in this community are few and far between and should be punctuated with celebration. Partying responsibly, relaxing, unwinding, social interactions helped us not only cope, but bond, and grow as close as we did it. When you live your life on the edge of the world, actively seeking to help people move a threat they cannot see, and rarely understand, these moments help affirm the work. These moments propel the workers to keep fighting for a better world. The bonds formed in-between the work, are crucial to understanding our differences, understanding our similarities, and ultimately understanding our world.

The author received permission to share the stories and photos above.

Ari Beser

Ari Beser, Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, member for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Student Academy Award semi-finalist for his documentary adaptation of his book "The Nuclear Family" and creator, showrunner and executive producer of "To Life" a new documentary series on Judaism. His photography has been published in French Vogue, National Geographic, The Nation Magazine, PRI’s The World, EFE, Spain’s El Diario, Harvard Law School, and Huffington Post.

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