Hibakusha: Aging anti-war cartoonist’s powerful image shows anger over Russian invasion

A cartoon drawn by Susumu Nishiyama depicting his take on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which Russia has hinted it may use nuclear weapons, is seen. (Image courtesy of the individual)

The voice of 94-year-old anti-war cartoonist Susumu Nishiyama over the phone was filled with frustration as he could no longer draw because his hands could not move as he wished, despite his strong anger as a Nagasaki atomic bombing survivor at Russia for hinting that it could use nuclear weapons in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The four-frame comic strip “Orizuru-san,” which Nishiyama had serialized for 42 years in the monthly newspaper of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations, had to be discontinued after its 501st issue in May 2021.

Nishiyama underwent surgery for stomach cancer six years ago, and his lung and kidney functions have also deteriorated. He is no longer able to walk, and now lives in a nursing home in the city of Fukuoka. “My hands are no good. It’s a real shame I can’t draw,” he said, with his voice shaking.

“President (Vladimir) Putin doesn’t understand the horror of nuclear weapons,” Nishiyama said to the Mainichi Shimbun. A day after the US military dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki 77 years ago, Nishiyama was ordered by his superiors at the then Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. Nagasaki Shipyard, where he worked, to go to a factory near the hypocenter to rescue the victims. On the way there, he saw five children that had been burned to the ground while covering their eyes, and a mother and child who had been charred completely black and fallen over.

Hitomi Shirabe performs a picture-story show drawn by Susumu Nishiyama for children in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, on May 10, 2022. (Mainichi/Takehiro Higuchi)

When he arrived at the factory, Nishiyama found a body lying on the floor, swollen with shards of glass piercing it all over, with both hands pointing to the sky, and white fat oozing from the wounds. He tried to move the body of a female student who had been mobilized to work at the plant, but the heavy machine tools on top of it refused to budge. A day passed without Nishiyama being able to do anything about the “rescue” mission, as he was just left flustered by the countless bodies.

“It’s hell. Only those who have experienced it can truly understand it,” Nishiyama commented. For several decades until he entered the nursing home two years ago, he traveled to schools and other places with cartoons and “kamishibai” picture-board stories that he had drawn, and shared his experiences with him.

One day, Nishiyama, who had been depressed because he could no longer draw cartoons, received encouraging news. A “successor” to tell his A-bomb stories had been found. Hitomi Shirabe, 60, head of the citizens’ group Peace Baton Nagasaki, who had known Nishiyama for years, became the person to testify in place of the A-bomb survivor whom the city government had trained.

On May 10, Shirabe, whose parents are A-bomb survivors, was invited to a peace study class for sixth graders at the municipal Iizuka Higashi Elementary School in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture. Coincidentally, the area around Iizuka is where Nishiyama spent several years as a coal miner shortly after the end of the war.

After the atomic bombing, Nishiyama returned to his parents’ home in Oita Prefecture, but suffered from what was known as “bura bura disease” — unexplained physical problems caused by radiation exposure. His illness caused him to have a strained relationship with his family, so he ran away from home and came to the Iizuka area. The young Nishiyama drew cartoons for the children in the coal mine housing complex and became their playmate.

Susumu Nishiyama is seen at a time when he was still writing his serialized comic strip “Orizuru-san” after entering a nursing home, in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward, on March 12, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the individual)

Shirabe performed a picture-board show for the children at Iizuka Higashi Elementary, depicting Nishiyama’s own experience of the atomic bombing. She then shared her thoughts with the children, “It’s important to imagine what would happen if a war broke out.” After listening to Shirabe’s talk, Sora Ogino, 11, said, “If an atomic bomb is used, any person could die. I want to create a future without nuclear weapons.”

Nishiyama was delighted to hear about the peace study class over the phone from Shirabe.

A few days after the Mainichi Shimbun interview, Nishiyama sent a single frame cartoon to a reporter. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are shouting at a large bird that is holding a nuclear weapon and glaring at them from the sky. The text, “Kakuheiki, Yamero!” (Stop nuclear weapons!) was written in shaky letters.

(Japanese original by Takehiro Higuchi, Nagasaki Bureau)


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