It is something of a routine every August for major news outlets to publish reflections on the great horrors that were the detonations of two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The statistics are familiar: an estimated 150,000 Japanese citizens dead immediately; at least as many injured in ways that would prove fatal eventually; and a combined death toll that dwarfs casualty numbers of hundreds of conventional attacks carried out in larger cities in Japan. Yet however harrowing these numbers are and ought to remain for us, no metric of magnitude can communicate what was and continues to be a lingering state of life for all citizens of the world today: we have the power to destroy ourselves.
What is decidedly not routine is the life story of Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Christian Methodist pastor who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the detonation of “Little Boy,” the not so aptly named mechanism of destruction that changed the course of history. On account of the stated vision for Christian Courier’s newly minted Global News section – and indeed amidst recent rhetoric of “fire and fury” – perhaps it is fitting to direct our attention to Tanimoto, whose unique witness presents Christians today with fundamental questions of identity and purpose.
Compelled to respond
Although born into a traditional Buddhist home, Tanimoto converted to Christianity as a teenager and studied theology at the historic Kansai University in Japan and Emory University in the United States. He was married in 1942 not long after the Japanese offensive in Pearl Harbor, and became the pastor of Nagarekawa Church in Hiroshima – one of the precious few publicly vibrant Christian congregations in the nation at the time.
The precariousness of Tanimoto’s life and ministry predated the 1945 catastrophe, as his unusual religious convictions landed him and his congregation in a state of constant surveillance by the Japanese state – not to mention an equally constant threat to which bomb sirens testified daily. Yet of course this precariousness intensified “in kilotons,” as it were, when Harry Truman decided that his self-described “fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era” would engulf not only countless civilians, but also Christians.
The story of Tanimoto’s August 6 is recounted in grave detail in John Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker article, “Hiroshima.” He was returning a favour for a friend outside of the city centre when the sky lit – noiselessly, as many survivors have since testified to their experience. After an initial phase of astonishment at the blast’s sinister exhibition, Tanimoto is reported to have run toward the city centre in the interest of meeting his family and congregation in a disposition marked by a resolute citizenly honour and unbounded Christian charity, making his way through countless fleeing families and exhausted bodies on both sides of a local highway into the city.
Eventually he became the beneficiary of the relatively supernatural, as he found his wife and one-year-old daughter were safe – on the way out of Hiroshima with many others sharing the gift of this unrequested solidarity. Tanimoto’s gripping story immediately after the blast is well accounted for in the still available New Yorker article, including most spectacularly his impromptu “ferry service” for injured survivors on Japanese waters (above which the Spirit was surely hovering, however invisibly). The lengthy piece is worth reading in its entirety, as is Hersey’s book of the same title.
Seeking Gospel peace
What Hersey’s magisterial article does not explore is the remarkable symbolic, institutional and familial legacy of Tanimoto, whose daughter, Koko Kondo, is an activist and founder of the Tanimoto Peace Foundation. Although the twin horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mark the only uses of nuclear weapons in warfare, the number of (known) active weapons still measures well into the thousands – more than enough to extinguish the entirety of the human species. Due in no small way to Kondo’s tireless advocacy work, a still more challenging aspect of Tanimoto’s legacy for us today has been brought to light. Whereas we often think of the matter in terms of especially dangerous nation-states (usually North Korea or Russia, from a Western perspective), the Japanese pastor considered the matter from what philosophers call a “higher viewpoint.”
Joining such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others, Tanimoto’s post-war peace efforts led him to embrace what is now known as the World Federalist Movement. World Federalism grew out of an effort to strengthen international legal structures such as the League of Nations and eventually the United Nations by founding institutions in nations around the world for the purposes of democratic representation and peaceful solutions to international conflict. As former League of Nations legal officer and prominent World Federalist Max Habicht once described the matter in a 1947 Congress, the idea is to call for a “Parliament of Man [sic], in which the representatives of the people of the world will make world laws by majority vote.”
For Tanimoto, this meant aggressively pursuing the establishment of a Hiroshima Peace Centre, “international and non-sectarian, which will serve as a laboratory of research and planning for peace education throughout the world.” Yet perhaps more remarkably, together with Norman Cousins and the aforementioned Hersey, he proposed a petition for precisely the sort of global legal structure that would reach maturity in the World Federalist Movement. Although it never reached its intended audience in the White House, the petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures from citizens in Hiroshima, a people that had become a living symbol of the urgency of peace in a world still recovering from the shock of Little Boy and Fat Man.
If Tanimoto’s goals were never realized in proportion to his grand imagination, his witness continues to pose challenges for Christians interested in the shape that the peace of the Gospel ought to take in a world “come of age,” so to speak. The recent words of Kondo, Tanimoto’s surviving daughter, are precise: “If I hate, I should hate the war.”
Christians ought not to be strangers in a world that lives on the brink, for at the centre of their professed history stands the catastrophe of the crucified Saviour. Whatever else the dual legacy of Tanimoto and Kondo challenges us with today, surely it involves the steadily rising call of what Bob Goudzwaard has named “God’s own globalization” – that is, an intentional disposition of renewal and solidarity with our fellow citizens of the world, especially for the most vulnerable among us. As Goudzwaard continues, there is reason to be encouraged, for “we believe Someone is guiding us on that way.” Perhaps it was something like this call that led through the otherwise noiseless disaster of Tanimoto’s August morning over 70 years ago, and Kondo’s message of forgiveness today.
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