The first week of August this month marks the 75th anniversary commemorating the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan at the end of World War II. It is a solemn annual event marking Japan’s loss of life, and honoring Japan’s Hibakusha, its now elderly atomic blast survivors. After the war, many Hibakusha went on to become lifelong peace and justice activists, working to teach the next generations of the horrors of nuclear warfare, and to rid the world of the planetary scale of violence of nuclear weapons. Many other Hibakusha went on silently to lead normal lives, keeping secret their survivor’s guilt, carrying their wounds and memories quietly into the grave. Most remaining survivors are now in their 80s, and many more pass away each year, which renders more poignant and urgent the obligation of the rest of humanity worldwide to take up their mission for global peace and unity.
In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be in Hiroshima, Japan. I had traveled there with colleagues and a group of American students taking a cross listed course in Peace and Conflict Studies/Asia Studies. We had to rise in the wee hours to commute to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, and be seated in time for the annual August 6 Commemorative Event, which begins at 8:15 a.m., marking the precise moment the atomic blast vaporized much of the city of Hiroshima and most of its residents: most were unarmed civilians: women, men, children, the elderly. I have had few ‘life changing’ experiences, but this was one of them. I was stunned to see that we seemed to be among the very few Americans there, despite the historic moment of it being the first time a U.S. diplomat would be attending the event. A few Japanese people approached me, thanking me—someone from the nation that so irrevocably harmed them—for being there. It was humbling to experience this event from the perspective of the vanquished ‘enemy’ our American history books portrayed the Japanese to be.
Thanks to my whirlwind bundle-of-energy colleague, Dr. Akiko Jones, who puts her nonviolent mojo into her award-winning Japanese language teaching and our local Cherry Blossom Festival, I have had the honor to become acquainted with one of the Hibakusha, Dr./Ms. Hiroko Nakamoto. As a little girl, Sensei Nakamoto survived the blast that fateful day. She went on to recover from her physical wounds, and to have a successful professional career, all while transforming her trauma into advocacy and supporting programs and institutions of learning that teach peace. Sensei worked her peace magic in Japan, and in the U.S., including here in Ohio. She used her own financial resources, moxy, and persistence to build a new peace park commemorative zone along the riverbank by Hiroshima’s train station. Her life’s peace work demonstrates that nonviolence involves patience, hard work, and an unbounded love of all life. Beyond being brilliant, as an octogenarian, she is one of the most fun, delightful, young-at-heart people I have ever met, with a mischievous sense of humor. She taught me that a life of nonviolence is the fountain of youth.
I have been studying and teaching about the peacebuilding Communication practices of diverse leaders and nonviolent activists for some 25 years now. As a grad student I flew from State College, Pennsylvania to San Francisco, California to see and hear the Dalai Lama in person—along with many other renowned nonviolent leaders at a major Peace conference. I also attended lectures on nonviolence by luminaries such as Myrlie Evers Williams, widow of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers (who was murdered in his own driveway in front of his children), and a bona fide activist in her own right. She had no rancor, only a steely reserve, an unshakable dignity, and an aura of steadfastness, as she discussed the work that faced nonviolent activism in some 15 years before Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated America’s conversation about our checkered history of aspiring for all “to be created equal” but falling far short of that ideal in reality. I attended other keynote addresses by nonviolent leaders and thinkers who view themselves as citizens of the world, like Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi. I had the good fortune to hear author/activist Arundati Roy speak of the growing need to address systemic violences of globalization’s rapacious greed, crushing poor people, wildlife and natural world ecosystems in its path. When I lived in Alabama, I got to see and hear in person Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, who came to speak at Troy University where I worked in 2006-07, and where Lewis recounted with mirthful irony, his college application in 1957 had been rejected due to segregation. Nonviolent leaders usually have a good sense of humor. Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “Love your enemy, it will ruin his reputation.”
These nonviolent leaders’ collective teachings convey that righteous anger is a good first step toward, as Nelson Mandela aptly called it, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom.’ Anger is a useful energy, if channeled carefully, to shift into action peacebuilders ranging from community organizers, students of peace and conflict studies, to citizens or protesters in the streets. But anger does not sustain the hard, grueling, lifelong labor needed to work for equity, for peace with justice. The next steps in that long walk involve networking, organizing, and not giving up. As any of the Nobel Peace Prize winners would say, each in her or his own way, nonviolence means sitting down and talking or negotiating with one’s adversaries, as fellow human beings. “Your enemy is your greatest teacher,” says the Dalai Lama. Experiencing nonviolence directly through the readings, writings, orations and leadership of such luminaries has given me inspiration and fortitude to keep moving forward, step by step, in my own small way, in my own life and work. So here I am, writing this reflection on nonviolence and its meaning to me now in this time of fearsome pandemic and brave citizen-driven calls for changing how our nation and world understands, and behaves to curb, systemic racism.
From nonviolent leaders what I have learned, and what I know about nonviolence now, is this: there isn’t a specific way for any one person to take on an issue that will make the world a more peaceful, justice-filled, or equitable place. There is no prescribed path for anyone among us to take up the Hibakushas’ mantle to advocate for the United Nations’ passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: globally, there are about 13,000 nukes, unimaginably far more destructive than those the U.S. used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Taking actions for nonviolence, justice, and peacebuilding can be as small as planting a tree in one’s yard or in a park, as Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai showed millions how to do worldwide. Actions may be as weighty as pursuing a career in global diplomacy or, as the tiny nation of Bhutan has demonstrated, creating a new and different (non-economic; pro-sentient beings) metric to measure modern life or success: Gross National Happiness (GNH). Whatever nonviolent thought or action you try, however small or big, it’s ok. Nonviolence takes time, it will be waiting for you.
Author makes the peace sign at Miyajima Gate, Japan, in 2010.
About the Author:
Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication (SMC), and Affiliated Faculty in American Culture Studies (ACS), Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program (WGSS) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Dr. Gorsevski’s research focuses on contemporary rhetoric of peacebuilding, social justice and environmental justice movements. Research interests include environmental rhetoric and critical animal studies, international/intercultural rhetoric, political rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, media criticism, and nonviolent communication. Her sole authored books include: Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Communication and Social Justice series of Troubador Publishing, 2014) and Peaceful Persuasion: The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004). She has published in journals such as Journal of Multicultural Discourses; Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; and Environmental Communication. She serves on the Steering Committee of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.