Surviving Hiroshima: A Hibakusha’s Story Is Told By Her Daughter

Aug 7, 2020

Seventy-five years ago this week, the United States bombed two Japanese cities with nuclear weapons. The United States detonated the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and the second over Nagasaki three days later, killing tens of thousands of Japanese civilians. This event is more than just a page in a history textbook for Japanese American author Kathleen Burkinshaw.

When she was 11, she learned that her mother did not grow up in Tokyo like she had always said. Her mother was a hibakusha, someone who had lived in Hiroshima and survived the bombing. Years later, Burkinshaw learned the entirety of her mother’s story when her daughter came home from school asking about the mushroom cloud she saw in history class. She shares her mother’s experiences in a young adult novel, “The Last Cherry Blossom” (Sky Pony/2016), which follows the life of seventh-grader Yuriko before and after the bombing in Hiroshima. Burkinshaw talks to host Frank Stasio about the story of survival that aims to educate young readers about the humanity of Japanese citizens villainized during the war.

Interview Highlights

Burkinshaw on getting her mother’s permission to tell her story of survival:

My daughter was then in seventh grade, and they had just finished [studying] World War II. She overheard some kids talking about that really cool mushroom cloud picture. And she was so upset, and she came home and she said: We need to tell them who is under that cloud. That cloud is not cool. We need to talk about grandma. And that's when it all started, because that's when I called my mom, and I asked for her permission. And she finally gave it to me to tell her story. 

A photo of Burkinshaw's mother and her mother's father on display at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims.
Credit Kathleen Burkinshaw

On doing research to discover what life was like in Japan during WWII:

It was a little difficult at first to find daily life in Japan during WWII written in English. And I don't read Japanese. So I had to do some more digging, and I finally found — actually on eBay — they had weeded books that actually were translated from Japanese into English about daily life. I found as many books as I could of other survivors, so that I could get a real feel of what else was there other than what my mother would have seen.

On telling both sides of the story in history:

I visited Tennessee when I was nominated for one of [the Tennessee Association of School Librarians] awards, and I visited some middle schools. I went to Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was one of the Manhattan Project sites, and they actually enriched the uranium for the actual bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. … I have a lot of respect for those who worked very hard in their patriotic duty to do what they did at K-25, that plant. Their stories are very important and need to be told. But also the story of what happened to the people under the bomb needs to be told, and that they can coexist. And the students were so great with that, because a lot of them did have relatives who had worked there. And they could understand that both stories being told — one does not negate the other one.