E.D. Report from Gensuikin Conference in Japan

Almost every year a representative from Peace Action is invited to attend the Gensuikin Congress Against A- and H-Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. I was very honored when Kevin Martin (E.D. of Peace Action National) asked me to attend this year, especially given the added tragedy continuing to unfold at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture. The conference began in Hiroshima, went to Nagasaki, and then to Okinawa, where the tone changed from primarily anti-nuclear weapons and nuclear power to anti-U.S. military presence on that island. In that sense it was truly like two trips in one: one where I participated in workshops on nuclear power and spoke about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and one in which I met peace activists and local politicians working to prevent the further expansion of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa and to close the U.S. military bases that were already there. It was an incredible experience, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate.

The topic of the workshops I was asked to speak at in Hiroshima and Nagasaki related to the dangers of nuclear power. Other speakers included some Gensuikin officers, a refugee from Fukushima Prefecture – who spoke about the radiation dangers there and the lack of government transparency about the accident – and the leader of the Green Party in the German Parliament, who spoke about Germany’s success in transitioning away from nuclear power to renewable sources of energy. Click the hyperlink to read a copy of my Hiroshima speech.

Many of the Japanese speakers over the course of the Conference criticized the recent sub-critical nuclear tests conducted by the U.S., which is something not too many American anti-nuclear organizations talk about. Sub-critical nuclear experiments enable scientists to conduct nuclear reactions in the lab that do not go “critical,” or achieve a sustaining chain nuclear reaction. They are part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) of the Department of Energy, which is the fancy name given to the life extension programs for nuclear weapons at the national labs. The SSP was started under the Clinton administration to appease members of Congress so that they would feel confident in the robust character of our nuclear stockpile under a self-imposed nuclear test ban.

The U.S. has stated that even under a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) sub-critical nuclear tests would be permitted, although this is something Russia and many other states are concerned about (even though Russia also conducts these tests). The value of sub-critical nuclear tests to nuclear weapon states is questionable at best, but they would be valuable experiments for would-be nuclear weapon states, and that’s why they should be banned under the CTBT and stopped immediately by the U.S. and Russia.

I’m guessing so many people in Japan are concerned about these tests because they are part of a means of keeping nuclear weapons in perpetuity, studying the effects of aging on the weapons’ nuclear material to make sure it remains “good” into the indefinite future. People in the U.S. should be concerned not only because this program poses a huge international security risk if it were to be tolerated under a CTBT, but also because billions of dollars are funneled into the national labs for these tests, which are not of critical national security significance.

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 a.m. the first atomic bomb was used in war, as the U.S. dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. That morning, the Gensuikin delegation headed to a commemorative ceremony in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, which was attended by approximately 20,000 people. Prime Minister Kan spoke, and I was surprised to hear him say that he “regretted believing in the myth of the safety of nuclear power.” The ongoing disaster at Fukushima resonates heavily here, with the fears of radiation exposure renewed. The Prime Minister also stated that Japan was going to review its energy policy from scratch, with the hope of ending reliance on nuclear power. Most speakers during the Conference workshops have related the accident at Fukushima’s nuclear power plants to the August 6 commemorations, and in fact I was asked to give my speech about nuclear power for this reason.

While walking to the ceremony, we passed several groups of high-school aged students who were collecting signatures for a petition against nuclear weapons. I asked one of the Gensuikin coordinators about this, and he told me that even though school is out for the summer, children in Hiroshima are required to attend peace studies classes on August 6. The importance of peace education is something the Japanese delegation brings up every year in the United Nations during the meetings of the General Assembly’s First Committee (the disarmament committee), and it is something we in Peace Action NYS have talked about. At our regional Peace Action retreat in New Hampshire this past July we also discussed the importance of peace education for young people, and I think this is an extremely important issue. I was lucky to have spoken to some high school students in Brooklyn in May about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and have been invited back by their teacher for next year – I think I will talk about peace with the students next time.

Boy Scouts waited outside the ceremony gates, handing out flowers to as many people as they could who were on their way in. The ceremony itself was beautiful, with a youth chorus, releasing of doves, and poignant speeches. Hearing the stories of the Hibakusha themselves on this day was a painful reminder of the terrible consequences brought by the atomic bomb, which are really too awful for our minds to fully comprehend. There was also a moment of silence at 8:15 a.m., punctuated by the ringing of bells, to commemorate the moment when the bomb exploded right over the place in which we were gathered and when the sky turned into flames.

I think the inconceivable nature of the destruction, damage, pain, and suffering from the use of nuclear weapons is one of the main reasons people don’t focus on them as an immediate danger that needs to be eliminated, and eliminated now. If Mayor Bloomberg were at that ceremony in Hiroshima, he would no longer be able to remain against becoming a Mayor for Peace. It is impossible to be unmoved by being in Hiroshima on August 6, especially as an American, but mostly as a human being. Hearing school children deliver a speech saying “each one of us is important” and that “we should not kill each other” brought tears to my eyes. It makes me sad for all my friends at Iraq Veterans Against the War and for all the people suffering from the useless wars in which our country is now engaged.

Seeing the atomic dome in person is also quite moving. As someone who has studied nuclear weapons and has worked for their elimination for some time, I have read about Hiroshima and seen pictures of this dome in countless books and articles. Seeing it in front of me in its ruinous state and imagining that moment when the bomb exploded and everything turned black was a very emotional moment for me. The Gensuikin delegation participated in a Peace March that ended up at the atomic dome, and at one point a few hundred people held hands and surrounded the dome, raising arms each time as we said “No More Hiroshima, No More Nagasaki, No More Hibakusha, No More Fukushima!” This is another moment I will never forget.

Ending the commemorative events of August 6 was the lantern lighting ceremony, where people write their own message of peace on paper lanterns, light a candle in the center, and float them down one of this city’s many rivers. I went with an Australian friend of mine who is here for the other big anti-nuclear conference in Hiroshima – his name is Tim and he works for the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which is an Australian NGO that is working on getting support for a nuclear weapon convention. A lot of young people are involved in ICAN, and Tim and I had a great discussion about the importance of bringing more young people into Peace Action. We sent our lanterns off together into the river with so many others and with them our message for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons -not sometime in the unknown future, but now, and for good.

In Nagasaki the workshop on nuclear energy that I participated in was even larger than in Hiroshima, and at both places there were excellent discussions with the audience about the safety and future of nuclear power in the world and in the United States. Fukushima is still creating environmental and humanitarian disasters in Japan, and the audience was interested to learn about the anti-nuclear power movement in New York and the greater U.S. Again, recent U.S. sub-critical nuclear experiments were discussed, as was the need for the swift entry into force of the CTBT.

The commemoration of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki on August 9 the Gensuikin delegation attended was smaller than the one in Hiroshima, but that was because several were taking place throughout the city instead of one big ceremony. Ours was at the hypocenter, above which the atomic bomb detonated 66 years earlier, and again it was a powerful and emotional moment. In Hiroshima people talked of theirs being the first city where an atomic bomb was exploded and that was unbelievably sad; in Nagasaki people spoke of the necessity for their city to be the last place an atomic bomb is ever used, which in some ways was even more powerful of a message. The atomic bomb museum there did not spare you from personal and gruesome stories of radiation effects on people, which only reinforced the idea that such a horrible event can never be allowed to happen again.

The trip took an entirely different turn when we flew south to the island of Okinawa, home of many U.S. military bases and a culture that is distinct from that of mainland Japan. At this point I was the only foreign guest with the Conference, and I was asked last minute to speak a few times about the U.S. military presence there. I was able to travel throughout the island and meet local peace activists engaged in 24/7 sit-ins to prevent the U.S. from building new heliports in the northern forests and who were protesting the noise pollution from existing U.S. bases that are located on top of civilian neighborhoods.

I promised the activists there that I would take their message back to the peace activists in the U.S. – that the U.S. is seen more like an occupier than an ally in Okinawa and the people of Okinawa do not want any U.S. military bases on their island, let alone any expansion of them. In my brief speech to a rally outside Futenma Air Base, near where a Marine helicopter crashed 7 years ago into the local university, I said our peace movements need to work together, with the Okinawan peace activists continuing to protest so that our military and government can no longer use the excuse that the people of Japan want our military there to protect them, and our peace movement in the U.S. will use the budget crisis at home to try and prevent the continuing spread of U.S. military bases abroad (as well as at home).

I think the thing that will stick with me the most from the first part of the trip is the human face of the very abstract idea of the effects of nuclear weapons, and how this has to inspire all of us to keep going with our anti-nuclear weapon work despite the heavy challenges it faces. From Okinawa, I think I will be left with the sour taste of seeing with my own eyes how the U.S. has basically taken over that beautiful island without regard for the people or environment there, and the awful feeling that left in me as an American who loves all the amazing things about my country, but knows we are falling short of our own ideals in so many places.

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