Shigemoto Yasuhiko is recalling the day he first saw
the incinerated city of Hiroshima as a 15-year-old
"I had escaped the blast and I came to check on my
friends," he says. "I walked across this bridge and
even five days after the bomb, it was covered with
charred bodies. I had to step over them, but there
were so many I walked on someone. The river underneath
was full of people too, floating like dead fish. There
are no words to describe what I felt."
He looks down at the rebuilt stone bridge over the
Motoyasu River, just yards from the iconic Hiroshima
Dome, where foreign tourists laugh and pose for
photographs in the blistering summer heat.
And with that, this modest retired schoolteacher, now
an old man of 75, turns silent, lost in his memories
of the horrific aftermath of the nuclear blast on
Aug.6th 1945; perhaps silently reciting one of his own
Hiroshima Day -
I believe there must be bones
Under the paved street
Kumo no mine genshi gumo no gotoki kana
Cumulus cloud like the mushroom cloud
How are artists to record unspeakable tragedy? Primo
Levi described the Holocaust in the detached prose of
the dispassionate novelist; the Dadaists famously
responded to the carnage of the First World War by
retreating into surrealism; the horrors of the current
conflict in Iraq may well be remembered in the future
through the Internet blog.
When Shigemoto began to write, aged 55, about the
Hiroshima blast, in which half the children in his
school died, he chose the shortest of literary styles:
the 17-syllable haiku. He had spent years wondering
why among the voluminous writings on the A-Bomb
attack, there was little written in this most
traditional of Japanese art forms.
At that time, few Japanese haiku poets wrote about
Hiroshima, "perhaps because they thought it was too
short," he says. "But I believe the shortness can be
very profound. If you write well, the connotations of
haiku, and the ability to stimulate the imagination,
are very strong - not like a story at all."
The British poet James Kirkup, who has championed
Shigemoto's work through two collections: My Haiku of
Hiroshima I & II, says the brevity of the poems is
"curiously touching". "Behind even the blackest images
we can feel the poet's deep sincerity, his conviction
that his vision of Hiroshima is a unique one, to be
shared with all the world in his own plain words."
Shigemoto reaches for his poetry book to explain what
he means. "My aunt lost all six of her children in the
explosion, and all her life she wandered around
clasping a photo album of her family. It was filthy
and battered from being in her hands for so long, and
she cried when she looked at it. I wrote this poem for
Child in a photo
Old mother murmurs his name
Shigemoto's sparing, nonjudgmental observations in the
classic haiku verse of 5, 7, 5 syllables and usually
including a 'seasonal' word, are like snapshots of
moments in time, and contrast starkly with the work of
the most famous Hiroshima poet, Toge Sankichi, whose
graphic epics leave the reader angry, wrung out. In
Toge's famous "August 6th" he wrote:
Heaps of schoolgirls lying in refuse, Pot-bellied,
one-eyed with half their skin peeled off, bald.
The sun shone, and nothing moved
Suisoni shitai afururu entenka
Bodies fill the water tank under the scorching sun
Shigemoto says he respects Toge's 'direct' style, but
wanted to do something different. "I'm not against
direct messages, or political poems, but I'm not a
politician. There are enough politicians. I'm a poet
and the power of poetry is to make people think. I
want people to silently contemplate, not shout at each
"People tell me that there is no message in my poems.
I think that's good. I just describe what I see. I do
this to heal myself, and somehow others get something
from it. I don't want to preach to anyone. I only want
to express that I'm still alive."
Like many who witnessed the bomb, Shigemoto survived
thanks to blind luck and has spent the rest of his
life wondering why; he was shielded from the blast
while working in the hills around the city as his
school friends, who were all killed, worked on a
different detail in the city center.
The victims arrived hours later, "like ghosts" with
arms stretched out in front begging for water. "They
walked like that because the dangling skin would have
stuck to their bodies."
He says one of the ghosts called his name, but he
didn't recognize his classmate because he was so badly
burnt. "It is so strange and unexpected to be alive
because I saw so many people die," he recalls. "It
almost feels like a sin."
These experiences, which he calls "the most inhuman in
the history of mankind," have been the motivation for
most of his 160 poems, but in September 2001,
Shigemoto was stirred by another mass-killing as he
watched hijacked planes sail into the World Trade
Center. The result was a set of haiku dedicated to the
people of New York, including this one:
Blowing through the ruins of
New York skyscrapers
Unlike some victims of the A-bomb, he appears utterly
without malice or anger toward the US, and his poems
brim with as much joy in the simple pleasures of
living, as they do in the memories of death. There are
even unexpected shards of humor, such as his
observation of people 'licking popsicles' and being
'bitten by mosquitoes' as they gaze up at the Dome.
Still, he professes wonder at the American reaction to
9/11. "Americans were terrified by what happened, but
not by Hiroshima. Which was the most terrible?"
At the end of a long interview, and a day with the
Independent photographer posing in the heat next to
the city's sites: the Dome, the Peace Park Memorial,
and the famous Hiroshima tree, blasted bare by the
force of the blast, but now a thriving symbol of new
life, Shigemoto looks exhausted beneath his
"Like most people my age, I don't want to remember,"
he says. "It makes me sad and tired, but our lives are
getting shorter and we have to speak out. Most people
today do not know or have forgotten what happened.
When I walk around this city today I see young
children playing beneath the cherry blossoms. They
have no idea."
And he reads another poem.
The children hunting
a cicada - not seeing
the Atom Bomb Dome
Shigemoto Yasuhiko's website can be found here:
His books, My Haiku of Hiroshima I & II, are both
published by Keisuisha.