Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Japanese RM awardee dreams of peace fest in Hiroshima

MANILA, Philippines—Why not a global festival of peace in a Japanese city demolished by the atomic bomb?

This is one of the dreams of Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, one of the seven 2010 Ramon Magsaysay awardees to be honored Tuesday, the birth anniversary of the late Philippine president after whom the award is named.
Akiba, 67, was two years old when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The bombs instantly killed between 150,000 and 200,000 people in the two cities, according to a US-funded study. Many who survived still suffer from ailments caused by the A-bomb.
Akiba’s family did not suffer a direct hit but some things have remained in his memory.

“One of my earliest memories was the firebombing of my hometown Chiba City near Tokyo. I was only two and a half years old but I remember scenes,” Akiba said.

The war and its aftermath haunted the precocious boy. Now he is campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons.

That world is possible, Akiba said.

“I am so confident that we are now studying in Hiroshima the feasibility of entering a bid for the 2020 Olympics. What could be better than to celebrate our entry into (a) new nuclear weapons-free world with a global festival of peace in Hiroshima?”

Award ceremonies Tuesday

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation cited Akiba for “his principled and determined leadership in a sustained global campaign to mobilize citizens, pressure governments, and build the political will to create a world free from the perils of nuclear war.”

He is the 24th Japanese and one of the 267 individual Ramon Magsaysay awardees since 1958.

Five of this year’s seven awardees—a Filipino couple, a Bangladeshi, a Chinese and a Japanese—will personally receive their awards in ceremonies Tuesday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Two other Chinese awardees are not coming, one for being ill and the other for unclear reasons.

“When I was a child, I watched a movie that showed children who suffered from the A-bomb. Scenes in the movie merged with my childhood experiences,” Akiba told the Inquirer.

Akiba spent his high school years in the United States as a scholar. After finishing his BS and MS in Math at Tokyo University, he went back to the United States to pursue his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Meeting the ‘hibakusha’

His US stay brought disturbing thoughts.

For example, Akiba said, many in the United States thought that Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the absolute evil and that the American decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan in 1945 was right.

Akiba taught in US universities for several years but returned to Japan in 1987 and became a professor at Hiroshima Shudo University. He became acquainted with the hibakusha (survivors of the A-bomb), one of whom, Akira Ishida, became his mentor in the advocacy against nuclear weapons.

“The hibakusha are not in Japan only,” Akiba said. “There are hibakusha now living abroad.”

‘No more Hiroshima’

With prodding from the hibakusha, Akiba joined politics and became a member of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) from 1990 to 1999. Then he became Hiroshima mayor, a post he still holds.

Now on his third term, he continues to take up the cause of the hibakusha.

The horror that visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not entirely lost on world leaders. In 1970 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force.

But despite cries of “No more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki,” the NPT was ignored by nuclear-armed states and those that have since acquired nuclear-weapons capability.

By 1980, there were close to 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world with destructive power equal to a million Hiroshima-type A-bombs, according to one report.

Tales of horror

Before he entered politics, Akiba was already involved in the nuclear disarmament campaign. In 1979, he launched the Hibakusha Travel Grants Program that invited Americans and journalists to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to listen to the hibakusha’s tales of horror.

The aim was to draw attention to the horrors of war and world annihilation.

Akiba felt that Hiroshima, being history’s first A-bomb victim, had the moral obligation to warn the world of the dangers from such weapons. He put his city at the forefront of an international campaign against nuclear weapons, continuing his predecessors’ efforts.

In 1982, Akiba spearheaded the Mayors for Peace movement. Mayors, he thought, were best positioned to mobilize citizens to be advocates for peace.

Mayors for Peace now has 4,069 member-cities from 144 countries and regions worldwide. In the Philippines, 16 cities are members.

People rarely suffer alone

Why cities and city mayors?

“Tragedies usually come to the cities,” Akiba said, adding that there was a lot that could be done at the city level.

“Mayors generally arise from the collective consciousness of their cities. We are close to our citizens. We suffer when they suffer. City mayors can influence their national governments more effectively.

“People rarely suffer alone. The suffering of any individual is actually the suffering of at least a family, if not a neighborhood. And a city is a vital, true and personally relevant level of collective identity.”

That is why we speak of Guernica, Ypres, Auschwitz, My Lai, Dresden, Akiba said. “This is why cities that suffer massive destruction become cities that work for peace.”

Past examples must be followed, Akiba urged. “The Ottawa Process that led to the treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines is one. The Oslo Process that led to the treaty to ban cluster munitions is another.”

In 2003, Mayors for Peace forged ahead with a “2020 Vision” campaign to pressure governments to abolish nuclear weapons by 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.

In 2020, Akiba said, the average age of the hibakusha would be 86.

In 2008 the movement issued the Hiroshima-Nagasaki protocol, a road map to guide governments toward total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Akiba considers the 65th commemoration at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial early this month very special because of the presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“He was the first UN secretary general to attend the ceremony,” Akiba said, “and he met with the hibakusha.”

For the first time, the US government sent a representative to the ceremony.

By working together, Akiba mused, people could create a world free of war, violence, starvation, widespread environmental destruction and institutional slavery.

And nuclear weapons would have no place in such a world. With a report from Inquirer Research