Blog Post

Japanese Storyteller Takes a New Approach to Sharing War Stories

Fumioki Okayama, founder of the blog 70 seeds, in front of his office building in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. PHOTO BY ARI BESER

Tokyo, Japan – This year marks the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. To commemorate this event, Fumioki Okayama, a designer from Nagasaki, founded "70 Seeds," a new Japanese blog to spread the stories of Post War Japan. His stories, like seeds, start out small, with topics as general as food, sports, places, romance, or culture, but as you read through each one, their wartime messages grow and become clear.

“Our aim is for young people to learn the lessons of a war they may not care about,” said Okayama, “Not everyone is interested in the war, but the survivors of the war are so much more than their terrible experiences. They fell in love, they have lives, they have interests.”

If you are interested in business, you may be drawn to the story of Mrs. Kohinata (first name not given), an atomic bomb survivor from Hiroshima who years after her childhood trauma inherited her husbands futon company when he passed away. She was a trained nurse and had no idea how to run a store, but was able to keep it afloat and turn a profit.

If you like art, you may be interested in the story of Ryukyu Glass. Okinawa, the island chain south of mainland Japan, is famous for its artisanal glass. Craftsmen have been making the glass in a factory on Okinawa's main island since the Meiji Era. "During the war everyone shifted their businesses to support the war effort, but in post-war Okinawa, they were allowed to resume their previous crafts and trades. However, the glass factory was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa and supplies were scarce. Glass manufacturers recovered the empty bottles of Coca-Cola that the U.S. military had consumed and left behind, and they resumed their operations,” explains the blog.

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A screen shot of the 70 seeds blog. The blog is written in Japanese. The group's next step is to translate their stories into English.

What is the point of telling these stories? "I just want to expose Millennials to the stories of the war in a framework that might interest them. If we forget the past we risk repeating the same mistakes. In Japan young people aren’t interested in history, they are only focused on their future. I believe that they need to look at the past in order to secure their future," explains Okayama.

The staff writers at 70seeds constantly add new stories. Not every subject they interview is a direct wartime survivor, but everyone is doing something related to the war. They asked me if I could share my story with them. They were interested in my grandfather’s story of being on both the airplanes that dropped the atomic bombs, but when they asked me what my interests were, it gave me an chance to talk about something I rarely get to share. Since they will post it in Japanese, I decided to share that story here in English.

In 2013, I had spent three years trying to write a book I still hadn’t completed. I worried that at the pace I was going I might burn out and never finish. I decided I needed a break from the atomic bombs, and Japan. I took the year off, and applied for a fellowship at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda. The tiny East African country, I thought, couldn't be more different from Japan. It was the break I needed to recharge, but to keep doing work I cared about.

ASYV bills itself as home for the most vulnerable teenagers in Rwanda. It has a high school, it has family, it has a media and arts center. Agahozo means “a place where tears are dried” in Kinyarwanda, the country's official language. Shalom means “peace” in Hebrew. The village was built in response to the Rwandan genocide which created over 3 million orphans in a population of 12 million. It copies the model of Yamin Orde Youth Village in Israel, which took in orphans after the Holocaust.

The Village is organized in a family structure. Each grade is split into eight families of 16 boys or 16 girls with a Mama who cares for them for their four-year stay, a big brother or sister who is a Rwandan guidance counselor, and for the first years, a foreign "cousin" who is there for 12 months to teach all of the students a speciality skill. Agahozo asked me to teach photo and video editing in an after-school program. I made a few videos of my own as well.

A music video I filmed and edited for Didier, a boy in my family at ASYV. Didier always knew he could sing, but gained the confidence to record and perform his first song Mwami Mana (God, My King). Produced by "Blameless", a fellow student and graduate currently studying at McGill University, Montreal.

At ASYV, I not only gained new life experience and new skills for digital storytelling, but as my year finished up I connected back to the story of the atomic bomb in an unexpected way. One day in Kigali, I met Shunsuke, a long term volunteer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). I heard him speaking Japanese to his co-worker in a restaurant. I was surpised. Who could be speaking Japanese in the heart of East Africa?

I knew nothing about JICA, which I learned operates globally much like Peace Corps in developing nations. To further my surprise, Shunsuke grew up in Hiroshima. He was actually in charge of the peace week being planned for the 69th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A big tent was set up at the Peace Stadium in Kigali. A survivor from the genocide spoke to the audience in Kigali, and a survivor from Hiroshima spoke to the audience from Japan via Skype.

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Sadao Yamamoto stands in front of the Enola Gay while on a visit to Washington, D.C. in June of 2015. He saw the plane 70 years ago, and it was the first time coming to see it since he survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

By the time I got home to America, I finished my book, The Nuclear Family, and was set to go back to Japan to start the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. A few weeks before I left, I was contacted by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Part of my work that I had done in 2013 involved an internship at the museum. The museum staff were traveling to Washington to open an exhibit at American University. They told me they were accompanied by a survivor who would share his testimony. My home town is nearby and they wanted to meet me.

The survivor they were traveling with had requested that they visit the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is currently on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum attached to Dulles International Airport. I asked them if I could come along. I had also never seen the plane that my grandfather rode on.

When they arrived, the survivor looked familiar. It turned out that Sadao Yamamoto was the survivor who spoke to the audience in Rwanda the previous summer. "Of all the people the museum could have brought, of course they would bring him," I thought. This fateful encounter was the last push of energy I needed before I arrived in Japan, ready to start telling these stories again.

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.

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