"Hiroshima Maiden" to Offer Memories of Horrific Day, Lessons for the Future

One day Shigeko Sasamori was just a 13-year-old girl doing whatever pre-teens do on a Sunday afternoon.

The next morning, after breakfast, the world ended. A flash of bluish light, visible through some classroom windows. Stillness, just two or three seconds. And then children’s cries. 

In one of history’s most atrocious ironies, the bomb that devastated Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and erased Sasamori’s home and life, was named Little Boy.

Next week, 75 years later, Sasamori will visit Utah State University to tell her story, reveal still-vivid scars, and remind us all of the sheer devastation and waste left by atomic bombs.

The continuing trauma is something most Americans simply don’t understand, said Atsuko Neely, a lecturer of Japanese in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. It’s not a case of negative perception, she said, but lack of knowledge. “People at that time experienced war time firsthand. Americans see war as something happening far away, not next door. It’s something soldiers do, just not to us.”

Neely is hosting Sasamori’s lecture, titled “Surviving the Atomic Bomb: Towards World Peace.” The event will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, in the Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is part of the Tanner Talk series.

An exhibition of origami paper cranes will greet event-goers, beginning in the lobby at 2:30 p.m. that day.

Sasamori, who at 83 is as “spunky” as ever, said Neely, often travels from her home near Los Angeles to present public speeches as one of the rare remaining Hiroshima bombing victims in the United States.

Neely said Sasamori will share her own personal memories of the devastating end to her childhood and the start of a second life. After 10 long years of disfigurement and loss, Sasamori was among 25 young women who in 1955 traveled to New York City for plastic surgery, which at the time still largely inaccessible to the public. The group was called the Hiroshima Maidens. To fellow Japanese they are still called Hebakusha, or “those who were bombed.”

Sasamori underwent 10 surgeries for injuries including a severely burned face and fused fingers. All told, surgeons preformed nearly 140 surgeries collectively on the Hiroshima Maidens.

Most of those young women returned to Japan following the surgeries. Sasamori chose to stay in the United States with her mentor and the individual who advocated and fund-raised for the maidens — Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review for 25 years and known for his “laughter therapy.” She is now an American citizen. 

This journey of advocacy has permeated Sasamori’s life since those surgeries in the 1950s. Later, as the country entered the Cold War, she found some work in the medical field and was trained as a nurse assistant, said Neely. She was unable to complete training as a nurse, however, because of her disabled hands.

For Neely herself, born and raised in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, the war and bombings were a part of her life, told and retold by parents who lived through the national trauma. She came to the United States after marrying John Neely, a professor in the Caine College of the Arts and an accomplished ceramist. 2020 marks Atsuko Neely’s 30th year at USU.

Neely hopes Sasamori’s presentation will increase understanding among Americans. 

“I think we have to sort of fill the gap as educators and an educational institution,” she said. Sasamori presents a much better lesson, she added, than “reading lines in a history textbook.” 

Johnny Lam, a senior in global communications with a minor in Japanese, is one of the event’s organizers. He agreed, adding that Americans are sometimes “blinded by education,” he said. “We often don’t get to learn a lot about the other side of the story, so this is good opportunity.”

Lam, who grew up in Hawaii, was deeply affected by a recent visit to Hiroshima, he said. The” only fragment of the bomb’s effect” is the skeleton dome of the building now designated as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. 

“Everything else is a skyscraper,” he said. “It hit home to see the growth in Japan and the people.”