New peace message, via an American

Times Staff Writer

Dig down below the 3 feet of topsoil that was dumped atop the ruins of central Hiroshima to make a memorial Peace Park and you’ll still turn up bones, remains of Japanese civilians incinerated when an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic fireball over this spot one August morning in 1945.

The Peace Park is a graveyard, the most visible scar of Japan’s disastrous imperial war and ground zero of its postwar, anti-nuclear conscience.

Remarkably, Hiroshima is now entrusting stewardship of this symbol of its annihilation to a citizen from the country that dropped the bomb: Steven Leeper, an American peace activist recruited to reinvigorate a local peace movement that critics say has failed to sufficiently push the power of Hiroshima’s anti-nuclear message to a global audience.

“Hiroshima feels an urgent need to have more connection to the world,” says Leeper, 59, who spent long stretches in Japan as a child and an adult. He says his mandate from Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba is to find a way to turn Hiroshima’s misfortune as the original victim of nuclear war into more than just a sentimental force for peace.


“There is a view among some that Hiroshima’s message is all emotion and lacks substance,” says Leeper, who in April became the first foreigner to run the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, which oversees the museums and memorials. “Right now, Hiroshima tells you the obvious: that the atomic bomb was a terrible thing, that nuclear war should never happen again, that we should live in a peaceful world.

“But it doesn’t tell you how to accumulate the political power to vote the warmongers out of office, or how we can stop ourselves from killing each other. If we are going to graduate from a war culture to a peace culture, we’re going to have to be a little more hardheaded on how we go about it.”

Leeper’s appointment comes as the generational clock is already forcing Hiroshima’s peace foundation to question standing assumptions. The museum has relied upon hibakusha -- those who survived the bombing or who came into contact with its radiation afterward -- to act as guides to the daily stream of visiting school groups. But any hibakusha who were old enough to have more than childhood memories of the bombing are now in their late 70s or 80s; only two dozen or so are still healthy enough to tell stories that bring that terrible day alive. Their witness may be digitally preserved in the museum’s archives, but the human connection to the bombing is about to disappear.

There is also awareness that Hiroshima’s peace memorials face competition to attract field-tripping students, who make up a quarter of the 1.2 million annual visitors. A few years ago, an advisory committee charged with suggesting ways to stop the slide in school excursions noted that the major complaint of visiting schools was the lack of any nearby amusement park for fun once the A-bomb tour was done.

Though school visits remain down, Leeper says overall attendance has recovered in the last two years, and he is hardly about to cater to amusing diversions. “You will not see a waterslide,” he says, grimacing.

But he still has an ambitious agenda of reform. The museum will try to raise its voice in the nuclear proliferation debate by sending an exhibit of the Hiroshima story to two locations in each of the 50 U.S. states ahead of next year’s presidential election. And in Hiroshima, Leeper wants a complete overhaul of the park museum’s displays.

The substantive challenge, he says, is to address whether Hiroshima can get beyond its current focus on eulogizing Japan’s suffering in a war it bears responsibility for starting.

Only about a tenth of the museum’s visitors come from outside Japan; Leeper says he has met Koreans in Hiroshima who “resent that this place does not talk about how bad the Japanese occupiers were in Korea and China.” Those who suffered at Japan’s hands can become furious, Leeper says, “at what they see as the Japanese getting away with looking like they were the only victims.”


Leeper wants to create a committee ranging from defenders of Japan’s pacifist Constitution to Japanese nationalists, as well as Chinese, Korean and American voices, aimed at arriving at a common narrative of the world’s first atomic bombing. If such widely disparate views can come together, he says, Hiroshima will have showcased the peaceful conflict resolution it has always advocated.

The desire to spearhead a more forceful peace crusade is something Leeper shares with his friend Akiba, a three-term mayor and energetic peace campaigner who is well aware that the anti-nuclear movement’s good intentions are not matched by influence in the corridors of power.

The two men met when Leeper and his wife, Elizabeth Baldwin, were running a translation business in Hiroshima in the 1980s, and grew closer as Leeper became drawn into the city’s peace movement.

When the American couple moved to Atlanta in 2001, Akiba hired Leeper to lobby at the United Nations on behalf of Mayors for Peace, a group of city leaders from around the world that the Hiroshima mayor wanted to become a lobby with political teeth.


Then in April, with the Hiroshima foundation casting for a new chief executive, Akiba did the backroom schmoozing to pave the way to bring in his American friend. The argument was that Hiroshima needed someone who spoke English, who would be as comfortable espousing a nonproliferation message in New York, Tel Aviv or Tehran as in Tokyo.

There has been no local backlash against the decision -- so far, at least.

“Steven speaks Japanese and has been doing peace activism for a long time, so there is no criticism against him just because he is an American,” says Katsutoshi Kajikawa of the Hiroshima branch of the Japan Congress Against A- and H- Bombs.

“It is highly symbolic that the mayor of Hiroshima has chosen an American,” Leeper says. “It proves that what Mayor Akiba has been saying all along is true: that Hiroshima does not seek revenge, that it does not hold a grudge.”