Written by Holly M. LaPrade with contributed photographs
Marina Outwater took the trip of a lifetime this summer, and is now eager to return to her classroom to apply her experience by putting human faces to her history lessons and spreading inspiring messages of peace to her students.
Outwater was one of only 12 teachers throughout the country who was selected to spend two weeks visiting the Japanese cities of Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Kyoto as part of a study tour to focus on peace and reconciliation between the United States and Japan.
During her trip, Outwater met with Japanese students, as well as several surviving victims, or “hibakusha” of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final stages of World War II in 1945. The term, which translates to “explosion-affected people,” is used to refer to civilians who were exposed to radiation during the infamous event. Victims suffered from a range of debilitating effects including cancers, leukemia, severe burns and scarring, and death.
Outwater explained that her primary goal in taking part in the program, which was hosted by the Five College Center for East Asian Studies, was to acquire firsthand knowledge of the subject and to share that information with her students.
“These events happened 71 years ago, but they can be used today to encourage peace to my students,” she said.
Outwater, who resides in Litchfield, is a sixth-grade teacher at Long River Middle School in Prospect, where she teaches English, reading and world geography.
“If you’re a student in America, the story is very one-sided,” Outwater said of the way that the bombings and their aftermath are portrayed in American history and social studies textbooks.
“We’re telling history from the victor’s point of view,” she said. “But we need to see the other side. It is so important to look at history from different perspectives.”
Outwater went on to explain her concerns with the fact that most students typically only see images of a “giant mushroom cloud over a nameless city” when learning about the bombings.
“And that’s the end of the story,” she said. “You don’t see a human aspect of it as a student in America.”
“You need to supplement your textbook,” she said in describing what she feels is her responsibility as a teacher. “This trip will allow me to supplement to the best of my ability.”
According to Outwater, her trip abroad allowed her to put human faces to a period in history that she has been deeply passionate about since her childhood.
“It was a completely somber experience, to envision what they endured; these gruesome, horrible things,” she said.
During the tour, Outwater was privileged to meet Yoshiro Yamawaki; who was 11-years-old when an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. His father, who was working at a nearby factory, was killed on that fateful day. Yamawaki and his brother soon discovered his body and had no other option than to cremate the remains “on the spot” that same day. It was a story that he never had the heart to share with his mother.
“I pray that no one else will ever experience the brutal tragedy that I witnessed at the age of 11,” Yamawaki wrote in a statement published by the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum on its website. “Let us all work together to build a peaceful world free of war.”
Another survivor that Outwater had the honor of meeting during the tour was Masahiro Sasaki, whose sister Sadako died from leukemia attributed to radiation poisoning following the bombing of Hiroshima.
“The family was really hit hard,” Outwater said. “But she never complained. She was the heroine you would expect her to be.”
The young girl’s story later inspired a popular children’s book, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” According to a description of the book on the Scholastic website, “there is a Japanese legend that says that if a sick person folds 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will make them well again.” Unfortunately, Sadako died before completing the task.
According to Outwater, origami cranes are also a “huge symbol for world peace” in Japanese culture.
While on the tour, Outwater and her fellow teachers strung together over 1,000 cranes which had been handmade by their students and displayed them in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, where a statue stands in tribute to Sadako.
Despite his family’s experience, Masahiro Sasaki has dedicated his life’s efforts to promoting the importance of “omoiyari” or having a compassionate heart, and has formed a partnership with former President Harry S. Truman’s eldest grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, to promote peace, reconciliation and healing. Their collaboration represents a meaningful partnership, as it was President Truman who ultimately made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.
“Over the years I have shaken the hands of dozens of American veterans who have told me, ‘I wouldn’t be alive if your grandfather had not dropped that bomb,’” Daniel said in a 2012 article published in the Kansas City Star. “Yet I have also held one of Sadako’s paper cranes in my hand, as well. So I choose to honor both.”
“It was a really huge honor to meet Masahiro,” Outwater said of the experience. “He spreads the message that you can’t have hatred in your heart.”
It was that aspect of the trip that struck Outwater most profoundly – the fact that she did not encounter any bitterness from the people they came in contact with. Outwater explained that the Japanese citizens she met were eager to share their stories with her group.
“We didn’t sense any anger or hostility,” she said. “We felt nothing but kindness and generosity, and they were grateful that we were there as American teachers to hear from them.”
She explained the significance of this openness, as throughout history many survivors kept their stories secret, largely due to the stigma associated with being a “hibakusha.”
“Japan is very for peace as a nation,” Outwater said. “They don’t want this to happen to anyone again.”
The most significant part of the trip for Outwater, was the opportunity to spend the day with a group of junior high school students in Hiroshima.
In Japan, there is a strong emphasis on learning about peace. In fact, much of their curriculum focuses on the topic.
“It was very impressive. That was definitely one of the stand out days of the whole trip,” Outwater said.
During the remainder of the trip, Outwater and her group also visited many historic sites, including the Nagasaki and Hiroshima peace museums, an experience she described as “very disturbing and graphic.”
“In America, we would shield our kids from those kinds of things,” she said, explaining that she was surprised to see students as young as first-grade viewing exhibits that contained very explicit images, such as a helmet containing brain matter.
“That really struck me,” she said. “They are the victims (of this event). They are learning about the devastation and loss and heartbreak from the victim’s point of view. For them, this happened to people that they knew. That’s the reality of it.”
Now that her life-changing journey is complete, Outwater intends to parlay her experiences not only into the classroom but also to the community at large. She is planning to give a presentation through the Litchfield Public Library and would also like to take part in a Peace Crane Project with her students. Through the project, people around the world are encouraged to “fold a peace crane, fill its wings with words and pictures of peace, then trade it with another child somewhere in the world.” More information can be found on the project’s website: www.armedwiththearts.org.