By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Wataru Namba, a Japanese American survivor of Hiroshima who widely shared his story, passed away on June 26, his 94th birthday.
Namba was remembered in a Facebook post by Darrell Miho, a photographer whose portraits of Namba and other hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) can be seen in the exhibition “Under a Mushroom Cloud: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Atomic Bomb” at the Japanese American National Museum until July 11.
“Namba was born in Acampo [San Joaquin County] and was studying in Japan,” Miho said. “He was 18 years old and an engineering student sitting in his classroom on the second floor when the atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, 1.2 miles away. He recalls the bright flash was like using too much magnesium (In 1945, flashbulbs were not invented yet and photographers would burn powdered magnesium to add light to take photos.)
“A large support beam fell and killed the student sitting in front of him. When he crawled out of the building, he was on the ground floor. The building had collapsed.
“His friends looked at him with a very concerned look and told him they didn’t think he was going to make it. He was covered in blood. They proceeded to look for an open wound, but could not find one. Namba said the blood was from the student sitting in front of him.
“During our interview, he said, ‘Those innocent kids I saw, hundreds piled up in the schoolyard, and school chairs and desks piled on top, and they poured the gas and started to cremate [them] … I don’t want to see this thing, never, in my life, anymore.’
“I have heard countless heartbreaking stories from atomic bomb survivors and even with my wild imagination, I still cannot imagine what it would be like to live through a nuclear attack. Many survivors described it as a living hell.
“Only the hibakusha know what that is like. By documenting and sharing their stories, I hope to educate the world of the horrors of nuclear weapons and to pass on the hope of the hibakusha that no one ever experiences the living hell they experienced. Peace begins with us.”
“Wataru Namba and his story will live on in our hearts,” JANM said in a statement.
Namba was remembered by his son, Dr. Robert Namba, and daughter, Anne Namba Nakao, who jointly responded to questions about their father.
“We traveled to Japan as a family when we were quite young,” they recalled. “We visited the Genbaku Dome and learned about his experience as young children.”
The Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome is the only structure remaining from the center of the Aug. 6, 1945 blast. The gutted building was preserved as a reminder of the bomb’s destructive power.
Namba and his children also visited the nearby Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum during their trips to Japan.
“Our father was quite busy as an aerospace engineer and a judo instructor,” his children said. “His public speaking probably began in earnest after his retirement. Our father did not display anger about his experiences and did not discuss nuclear weapons directly. He did admonish war in general.”
They added, “We have been pleasantly surprised by the younger generation’s interest in learning more about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Asked what life lessons they learned from their father, they said, “He taught us resilience, instilled the importance of family and taught us to pursue our dreams with passion.
“He was a 7th dan judo instructor who taught and inspired many generations of martial arts students. He enjoyed writing, drawing, painting, watching sumo and was always eager to learn more about the world.”
Namba’s legacy was also carried on by his grandson Jared (Robert’s son), who produced a short documentary about his grandfather, “An American Hibakusha,” which is available on the Discover Nikkei website. It was released last year with Time magazine.
Jared Namba and his film partner, Sazzy Gourley, directed thte documentary for the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings.
“It is not widely known that there were nearly 3,000 U.S.-born Japanese Americans living in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped,” Namba said when he released the film. “Approximately 1,000 of them survived and returned to the U.S. 75 years later, the U.S. government has never recognized this community of survivors.”
Explaining why his grandfather was in Japan, Namba said, “My grandfather was born near Stockton in 1927. He spent his early childhood living on a farm with his parents and five younger siblings. His older brother Hiro was the eldest and lived in Hiroshima with his grandparents, who were training him to oversee their properties at an early age.
“In 1934, my grandfather moved temporarily to Hiroshima with his parents and younger sibling to join his grandparents and help in the family’s real estate business. By 1936, his parents wanted to go back to the U.S., but my grandfather says he came down with pneumonia and faced a difficult decision.”
“I remember my parents asking where I wanted to live,” Wataru Namba said. “They offered to postpone their return back to the U.S. until I recovered from my illness. This was definitely the first big decision in my life. I knew that if I returned back to the U.S., I would get bullied by the tall Caucasian boys on the way to school in Lodi each day, but if I stayed in Japan, my older brother, Hiro, would boss me around. I could tell that my parents appeared anxious to go back to the U.S., possibly because it was a critical time for caring of the grape vines back at the farm. Since I couldn’t think of a good solution, I lied to my parents and said, ‘Because I like living with my older brother, I would like to stay here in Japan.’”
He returned to California in 1952.
Jared Namba said, “Growing up, the World War II Japanese American experience was explained to me in terms of incarceration in internment camps. Meanwhile in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese citizens were the victims and America the victimizer. Eventually, I processed the fact that my grandfather’s experience as a Japanese American didn’t fit within either of these historical narratives.
“I wanted deeply to help share his story, and raise awareness about this forgotten history, but I didn’t really have an outlet until I went into documentary filmmaking this year.
“Aside from raising awareness about this community of Japanese American survivors that has never been recognized by the U.S. government, Sazzy and I want to give viewers a sense of the human cost of war and the power that nuclear weapons gives a single entity like our country to decimate entire cities at once.
“75 years after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of us have become detached emotionally from the realities hibakusha had to endure. It’s one thing to read a paragraph in a textbook. It’s another to sit face-to-face with a survivor or see and hear their story through a film such as this.
“It is concerning how much money our government and nations abroad continue to pour into their nuclear arsenals — in 2017, the U.S. government made plans to invest $1.2 trillion into its nuclear arsenal between 2017 and 2046. Meanwhile, so many communities of color, particularly Black, Brown, and indigenous communities, remain under-resourced …
“This touches on our final point, which is that we hope viewers walk away with a more nuanced perspective of the U.S. government and military. Some questions that the film raises are: Why has the U.S. government never recognized these American survivors? How do we reconcile my grandfather’s tragic experience as a Japanese American with [President] Truman’s assertion that Hiroshima was a success for America? Who counts as American in this narrative? How much of our military’s past and current involvements abroad are framed to us as a ‘success’ while hiding overlooked realities of those who are often Brown and Black and have experienced its violence?
“If viewers are interested in learning more about the themes covered in this film, we created a resource guide, which serves as a ‘next step’ for those interested in learning more about other hibakusha narratives, the U.S. response to the atomic bombings, the U.S. military industrial complex, and global efforts to denuclearize. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s a place to start.”
More information is available at www.jazzy.media.
Wataru Namba is survived by his wife, Reiko; son, Robert; daughter-in-law, Stephanie; daughter, Anne; son-in-law, Mark; daughter-in-law, Michele; grandchildren, Lauren, Chris, Bryan, Jared, Alexandra, Grant, Wesley, and Andrew; brother, George; and sister, Viola. He was preceded in death by his son Ted.
A public viewing will be held on Sunday, July 4, from 9 to 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles. A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Aug. 22, at Fukui Mortuary.