HONALO — A near blinding flash outside the infirmary window brought a young Ed Kawasaki to his feet. Just seconds later, an earth-shaking blast and the resulting spray of shrapnel from exploding windows and doors hurtled him backward onto his hospital bed.
As Kawasaki lay there, blood trickled from cuts to his face and soaked up the white of his gown in scattered splotches across his torso. Luckily, he suffered only superficial injuries attributable solely to the glass shard projectiles that peppered the then-9th grader’s body.
On Jan. 13, 2018, more than 1.5 million Hawaii residents and visitors shared 38 minutes of terror when the state’s Emergency Alert System issued a false ballistic missile threat to cell phones and email accounts across the islands. On Aug. 6, 1945, Kawasaki, an Oahu native, suffered through the atomic blast at Hiroshima with roughly 350,000 others absent any notice at all — and lived to tell the tale.
Twist of fate
Kawasaki did just that Saturday evening at the Daifukuji Soto Mission in Honalo at a presentation hosted by Kona Hiroshima Kenjin Kai and the Kona Japanese Civic Association.
He came with his wife, Grace, from their home in Oregon to speak to a crowd of dozens at the behest of two juniors from Konawaena High School, Jana Masunaga and Shayla Sayphone, after they completed research papers on Hiroshima and its survivors for an early college English class at Hawaii Community College — Palamanui.
Kawasaki relocated to Hiroshima with his family in 1941 to care for his ailing grandfather. Four years later and two days before the United States dropped the bomb that literally exploded the world around him, an organ threatened to explode inside of him.
Stricken with appendicitis, Kawasaki’s father called a medical facility to make arrangements for his son’s treatment and recovery. He reached out several times, but telephone communication was interrupted that day and the call never connected to that particular hospital.
His father chose another route and Kawasaki landed in a room 2 miles from the epicenter of the blast. The building in which his father initially intended him to stay was situated on the edge of ground zero.
“If the telephone had connected, I wouldn’t be here,” Kawasaki told a captive audience Saturday. “What a lucky twist of fate and miracle. I sometimes feel as though I’m living on borrowed time.”
By 1946, the death toll at Hiroshima rose to roughly 140,000 people including those who died of radiation-related complications. Not only did he survive the explosion, but Kawasaki has also evaded the medical complications of nuclear fallout.
The scars he carries are on the inside, imprinted on his heart and indelible in his mind.
His hospital was evacuated in the wake of the explosion. After gazing upon the low, rising mushroom cloud a couple miles off in the distance, Kawasaki looked up to the heavens. The first thing he remembers seeing was the bomber, the instrument of widespread death and destruction across his city, flying peacefully off into the horizon “silver against the blue sky.”
Some hours later, Kawasaki was escorted from a crude bomb shelter nearby back to the main building. As he approached, he watched victims of the blast limping toward the facility, many badly burned or injured. He recalled one man burnt so severely the skin appeared to be melting off his arms.
In the weeks that followed, Kawasaki was required to return to the hospital for further treatment. He made those trips on foot. He can still recall vividly corpses piled haphazardly in grotesque heaps lining the road. In a crude attempt at mass cremation, the bodies were set ablaze and often burned as he walked.
It wasn’t just the stench of charred flesh invading his nose that offended his senses, but the site of half-burnt human remains dangling off the edges the death heaps after the flames failed in their purpose. Those scenes completed the nightmarish imagery, which has stuck with him through the decades.
And there was loss, too. A friend of Kawasaki’s in the grade below said goodbye to 215 of his 250 classmates. Kawasaki lost 17 classmates of his own as well as his youngest cousin, who died in transit on her way to middle school.
Kawasaki visits Hiroshima frequently. When he does, those who died so many years ago are never far from his mind.
“As I stroll in the museum and in the park among the monuments, many memories are reflected of my life and of my friends,” he said. “It always grips my heart.”
A great deal of hatred, anger and bitterness arose from the events of that early August day in 1945, Kawasaki explained. His family, some of whom were American-born as he was and others who lived their entire lives in Japan, were not immune from those emotional consequences.
“My auntie was very bitter against America for a very long time,” he said. “But time has a way of healing.”
As a Japanese-American, a U.S. citizen living in Hiroshima at the advent of the atomic age, Kawasaki has long grappled with the morality of his country’s decision to employ such a destructive weapon on the country that birthed his ancestors.
So many died, so many were injured, yet Kawasaki spoke of Japanese academic perspectives and other statistical estimations that suggest many more people, Japanese and American, might have perished had the war waged on to the point of a mainland Japanese invasion.
“We were in an imperfect world. Somebody had to make an imperfect decision to end the war,” Kawasaki said. “Do not be ashamed to be an American, for we all have to realize that war is hell.”
He added that many survivors and their descendants with whom he’s familiar aren’t holding on to anger or a desire for retribution today — that they haven’t for awhile. Instead, they regard the horrific event as a jumping off point for peace.
Masunaga and Sayphone, both descendants of people directly impacted by the atomic bomb detonation at Hiroshima, were surprised and impressed that Kawasaki’s attitude was so flawlessly forgiving.
“That perspective made them think we can’t just keep on hating people,” Masunaga said. “We have to learn to forgive others because that’s how we’re going to move through things and get on with life.”
Sayphone’s reaction to Kawasaki’s perspective was similar.
“We really just had the realization that the survivors of the atomic bomb, they really just want to promote and advocate for world peace rather than holding a grudge,” she said.
Kawasaki punctuated the evening presentation by putting his own words to such sentiment.
“Yes, we could question ourselves whether it was OK or not OK to have used the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “But if you are asked about that … by a foreigner, as an American I would say, ‘I’m sorry that it happened. Let us forgive each other for the war. Let us all pray for eternal world peace. And then, we should just move on.’”