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Telling My Grandfather’s Story from Hiroshima Through Film

An American Hibakusha (TIME, 2020)

For the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my film partner Sazzy Gourley and I directed a short documentary, An American Hibakusha, about my grandfather Wataru Namba, who is a US-born Japanese American survivor of the atomic bombing.

It is not widely known that there were nearly 3,000 US born Japanese Americans living in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped. Approximately 1,000 of them survived and returned to the US. 75 years later, the US government has never recognized this community of survivors.

Released with TIME magazine, this film recounts the day that the bomb was dropped as my grandfather was going over his daily homework at Hiroshima Engineering Technical Junior College.

Why my grandfather was living in Hiroshima during World War II:

Wataru Namba

My grandfather was born near Stockton, CA in 1927. He spent his early childhood living on a farm with his parents and 5 younger siblings. His older brother Hiro was the eldest and lived in Hiroshima with his grandparents who were training him to oversee their properties at an early age.

In 1934 my grandfather moved temporarily to Hiroshima with his parents and younger sibling to join his grandparents and help in the family’s real estate business. By 1936, his parents wanted to go back to the US, but my grandfather says he came down with pneumonia and faced a difficult decision:

“I remember my parents asking where I wanted to live. They offered to postpone their return back to the US until I recovered from my illness. This was definitely the first big decision in my life. I knew that if I returned back to the US, I would get bullied by the tall Caucasian boys on the way to school in Lodi each day, but if I stayed in Japan, my older brother, Hiro would boss me around. I could tell that my parents appeared anxious to go back to the US, possibly because it was a critical time for caring of the grape vines back at the farm. Since I couldn’t think of a good solution, I lied to my parents and said, ‘Because I like living with my older brother, I would like to stay here in Japan.’”

He returned to California in 1952, seven years after World War II.

Why I made this film:

Growing up, the World War II Japanese American experience was explained to me in terms of incarceration in interment camps. Meanwhile in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese citizens were the victims and America the victimizer. Eventually, I processed the fact that my grandfather’s experience as a Japanese American didn’t fit within either of these historical narratives.

I wanted deeply to help share his story, and raise awareness about this forgotten history, but I didn’t really have an outlet until I went into documentary filmmaking this year.

What I hope people take away from this film:

Aside from raising awareness about this community of Japanese American survivors that has never been recognized by the US government, Sazzy and I want to give viewers a sense of the human cost of war and the power that nuclear weapons gives a single entity like our country to decimate entire cities at once. 75 years after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of us have become detached emotionally from the realities hibakusha had to endure. It’s one thing to read a paragraph in a textbook. It’s another to sit face-to-face with a survivor or see and hear their story through a film such as this. It is concerning how much money our government and nations abroad continue to pour into their nuclear arsenals—in 2017, the US government made plans to invest $1.2 trillion into its nuclear arsenal between 2017 and 2046. Meanwhile, so many communities of color, particularly Black, Brown, and indigenous communities, remain under-resourced. We can never forget what nuclear weapons allow them to do.

This touches on our final point, which is that we hope viewers walk away with a more nuanced perspective of the US government and military. Some questions that the film raises are: Why has the US government never recognized these American survivors? How do we reconcile my grandfather’s tragic experience as a Japanese American with Truman’s assertion that Hiroshima was a success for America? Who counts as American in this narrative? How much of our military’s past and current involvements abroad are framed to us as a “success” while hiding overlooked realities of those who are often Brown and Black and have experienced its violence?

If viewers are interested in learning more about the themes covered in this film, we created a resource guide, which serves as a “next step” for those interested in learning more about other hibakusha narratives, the US response to the atomic bombings, the US military industrial complex, and global efforts to denuclearize. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s a place to start!


© 2020 Jared Namba

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