Rethinking World War II: An Interview with Caren Stelson

By Marina Yoshimura


Ms. Caren Stelson, the award-winning author of Sachiko. Sachiko is a memoir about a girl who survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, and what her life was like before, during, and after WWII. 

Q: What do you hope Americans will take away from your Sachiko story?

A: I wrote Sachiko’s story because Americans have little understanding of what happened to the hibakusha, the people who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings of WWII. We know little about the short and long term effects of radiation exposure, nor the social trauma the hibakusha experienced in the years that followed. We Americans, citizens of a country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, continue to remain blind to nuclear history at our peril– at the world’s peril. I began interviewing Sachiko Yasui in 2010, flying to Nagasaki and spending hours recording my conversation with Sachiko. I returned to Nagasaki four times after my initial meeting to continue my research and interviews. Each trip I took to Japan, it seemed the world moved closer and closer to war and further away from the memories of the hibakusha and their message of peace. When the book was published, I was prepared for public criticism that may follow. I couldn’t have been more surprised by SACHIKO’s reception. Among other awards, SACHIKO was long listed for a National Book Award in 2016. Since the book’s publication, I have met with readers from ages 10 to 100. I’m most pleased that young people have taken Sachiko’s story to heart. I wrote SACHIKO as a young adult nonfiction, knowing it was the young people we need to educate about nuclear war. Numbers are cold and feel theoretical. Knowing the number of nuclear warheads in the world does not help us conjure up the catastrophic horror of what a nuclear war would produce. Read one person’s story of nuclear survival, and we begin to understand the words of every hibakusha, “Never again. Never again.”

Q: What do you think about U.S.-Japan alliance/relations today? What do you hope to see in their relationship in years to come?”

A: What do I think of U.S.-Japan relations today and into the future? Frankly, with Donald Trump as President, I worry about U.S. relationship with all countries, not just Japan. Still the U.S. – Japan relationship is one to be honored and nurtured and not just for trade, politics, and the stability of the Pacific region. Japan’s relationship with the U.S. is one of the few example where two sworn enemies of war have become allies for peace, in part because the U.S. Occupation of Japan played a massive role in Japan’s pacifist constitution and postwar political, social and economic changes and because of Japan dynamic recovery. What specifically concerns me is the possibility that the Japanese government will rewrite Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution in the near future and begin to rearm again. Unfortunately, the present policy of the U.S. administration would welcome such a change. Can Japan and the U.S. find ways to keep the peace without rearming? I hope that Japan’s citizens put pressure on the government to do so.

Citizen power, often overlooked, can be a real force for peace, not only to influence domestic policy, but also by collaborating to put pressure on world leaders for world peace. Over the decades, Americans and Japanese citizens have formed a network of friendships and demonstrated appreciation for each other’s culture. I hope the number of citizen friendships continues to grow and deepen. We must work for peace together, at all levels. Given U.S. and Japan’s democracies, citizens from both countries must make their voices heard, speak out for peace, and above all vote.

Q: “Some people say war is justified. How would you respond to this argument?”

A: I’ve been thinking a lot about this question:

It’s possible to read human history as a series of wars, one after another. In my view, war is a complete failure of diplomacy, whether great diplomatic efforts are employed to avoid conflict, or not. Today, with the 15,000 nuclear war weapons in the world, with warring factions on nearly every continent destroying communities and ravaging the environment, with the flood of displaced people seeking safe asylum, the world is in crisis and at a tipping point. All countries must work together to avoid war, particularly another world war, that could very well lead to the destruction of the human race. This is not hyperbole. The present strength of nuclear warheads today are far more powerful and destructive than the first two detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Today, we are as far away from world peace than we have been in decades. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put the Atomic Dooms Day Clock at 2 minutes to midnight. In 1995, the clock was at 14 minutes to midnight. With right wing politics and dictators on the rise, and hatred and discrimination used as political tools, we have seen this polarizing scenario in the 1930s and 40s. One might ask: Was war justified then? Looking back, particularly at Nazi Germany and Hitler’s demonic desire to take over Europe, and I’d say “yes.” But what about now? Now is different. Now we are in an existential time zone. The threat of nuclear war makes it so. We must find our way out of waging war, any war, because any war can inadvertently lead to complete destruction. This is not a Pollyanna or naïve statement: It’s imperative to eliminate nuclear weapons and the “match” that could set off a nuclear demise. This means, we must begin the work of eliminating war itself.