“I Want People to Know the Word ‘Peace’”

By Bryan Garman

Yamaoka-san and the responsibility of survivorship.

Over the past weeks, I have been remembering Michiko Yamaoka (1930–2013), an extraordinary person affectionately known to the Sidwell Friends community as Yamaoka-san. Born in Hiroshima, the 15-year-old Yamaoka-san found herself trapped beneath rubble located 800 meters from the hypocenter of the atomic explosion that decimated her birthplace and reshaped the world. She endured and witnessed unspeakable horrors, struggling for her own life while casual- ties from the history-altering blast approached 100,000. “I suffered the pains of burns and of growing up in a world of tears as a result of constant confrontation with the dark face of death,” she reflected. “It was like being in hell while still alive.”

Disfigured and scarred, Yamaoka-san traveled to the United States in 1955 with 24 other survivors: the Hiroshima Maidens. Surgeons at Mt. Sinai Hospital performed 27 procedures to restore functioning to her hands and reshape her face, which, due to the explosion, had been fused to her neck. During her visit to the country that had warred with her own, Yamaoka-san visited Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia, and lived with a family of Friends while undergoing her surgeries. She eventually joined the Japan Yearly Meeting and made her way to Sidwell Friends School as the 1995 Peace Speaker. Thanks largely to our former colleague, Ellen Pierson, the former advisor to the Upper School Japanese summer exchange program, Yamaoka-san returned to campus on five other occasions and offered students poignant opportunities for deep learning and understanding. The School memorialized her contributions by planting a Japanese maple behind Zartman House, where her spirit continues to guide us. 

To be in Yamaoka-san’s presence was at once humbling and inspiring. An unapologetic
humanist, she never leveled blame nor acted with bitterness. Having miraculously survived a nuclear attack, she accessed a level of consciousness that few of us will ever know. She moved mindfully and lovingly through the world, conveying a wisdom and gravitas that I have experienced neither before nor since our meetings. She was a powerful witness to our collective shame and possibility as a species, a truly beautiful person whose body was a physical reminder of what we are capable of doing to one another at our worst. Weakened by radiation exposure, she often needed to pause during her campus visits so that she might find respite from myriad complications. These moments revealed a tender sense of humor, a determination to live joyfully, and an indefatigable commitment to peace.

As we begin to make sense of the losses we have experienced, we too must welcome the possibility to think beyond ourselves and build a better community."

“I abhor war because it truly destroys humankind, transforming human kindness, sympathy, peace, and love into an unthinking, devilish power,” she reflected in Friends Journal. “I absolutely cannot accept a ‘peace’ built upon the sacrifice of individual human beings. ... I firmly believe that I must continue, as long as I live, to raise my single voice to declare to as many people as I can the horror of war and the preciousness of human life.”

As we emerge from the pandemic, I am struck by Yamaoka-san’s ability to reframe historic suffering—suffering that we all hope will be the sole example of its kind—as strength and possibility. Given what she endured, she could easily have withdrawn into anger and self-pity. She recognized, however, that her survivor- ship carried a sacred obligation.

As we begin to make sense of the losses we have experienced, we too must welcome the possibility to think beyond ourselves and build a better community. Yamaoka-san encourages us to channel loss so that we might achieve the greater gain of peace; she calls us to abandon our typical privileges and entitlements to work for the betterment of humanity. Our suffering neither compares to hers nor to that of the countries where the pandemic continues to rage. Still, we are enduring a significant historic challenge. How will we teach our students to honor the preciousness of life?

Yamaoka-san fully understood that preciousness. She recognized that we cannot intentionally harm another human being without dehumanizing them. We have seen plenty of dehumanization, hate, and violence over the past year. It seems that every category by which we typically dismiss and debase one another has been exploited. 

We must strive to see beyond our typical field of vision and imagine the world anew. While our students’ suffering may pale in comparison to that of the young Yamaoka-san, they too have struggled and need time to heal. “I want people to know the word ‘peace,’” Yamaoka-San insisted. “I don’t want children to be the victims of war any- more.” If we want our students to know peace, we must help them build a bulwark against the rising tide of hate; otherwise, we will witness more violence, a threat that deteriorates relationships and edges us toward global conflict. The most profound and joyful Friend I have ever met, Yamaoka-san understood that peace is not simply the absence of war, but a state of being in which the dignity and divinity of every human being is affirmed. When we practice this affirmation, we cultivate peace in ourselves and in one another. This practice is the best hope we have to protect ourselves and the world against violence.

Yamaoka-san let her life speak to the peace testimony every day. How can we bear witness to her efforts? How will we use our survivorship? How might we embrace this moment to reflect on the contributions we have made to our communities and build upon these contributions in the future? What kind of community do we want to be? As we reflect on our survivorship, we have a precious opportunity and pressing need to examine these queries with the earnestness and urgency they require.

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