Poisoned Before Birth

Yoshinori Yamashita

MY MOTHER was an ordinary woman, but she had great courage. When I was a child, she often told me that her aim was to work so that I and all other children like me would never have to go to war. Part of her struggle to this end was the organization of a study group of mothers of primary-school students to discuss the responsibilities and historical role of woman. I myself was a primary-school pupil when she started this group. But soon her activities expanded. She led street campaigns against the Japan-United States Security Treaty and against all war. At the many meetings conducted in our home, I was always amazed at mother's energy and devotion.

She was strict with us, and her example inspired us with social awareness at an early age. When a first-year student in junior high school, I wrote an essay on the existence of god. My teacher praised my work at a parent-teachers' meeting. I was elated by my own success, but mother severely warned me about being exultant over a small triumph.

Toward the end of the summer after my second year in middle school, I became listless and lost all appetite. A tumor developed on my neck. I was forced to go to a hospital for examinations. Mother went with me; and on the way home, as we trudged along in the dusk, she said over and over, as if to herself, "It isn't malignant. It can't be!" Terror gripped my heart, for I had heard of the fate of the so-called second generation of atomic-bomb victims.

I realized that I was one of them when I was hospitalized to undergo surgery on the tumor. The doctors said at the time that my days might be numbered. Mother sobbed bitterly when she learned this; and I overheard her tell someone that she should never have eaten that apple, washed in the deadly black rain that fell on Hiroshima while I was still in her womb. My own fear was overwhelming, but I was nonetheless capable of realizing the immensity of her grief. She had struggled bravely to have war abolished for the sake of children; now one of her own children was in grave danger because of the effects of the atomic bomb.

I hovered on the borderline for a while; but I narrowly escaped death, and my condition gradually improved. A year later, to my mother's intense happiness, I was allowed to return to school. But at the beginning of each new school year, I was haunted by the fear that it might be my last.

One morning in my first year of high school, I went downstairs to find my father preparing to take mother to a hospital. Though I knew that she had not been feeling well, I had not suspected anything serious. But this was the start of her long, silent, painful fight for survival. She had cancer that required two operations. In spite of a condition that caused her to vomit blood from time to time, she never complained. All she said was, "To live involves pain."

Shortly after three in the afternoon, on June 16, 1964, she died. It was hot and stuffy that day. The palms of my hands would not stay dry. On the preceding night she had coughed up much blood and had made strange, choking sounds. An autopsy revealed that she had been strangled by blood accumulated in her windpipe. Her entire body was eaten away with diseases caused by the radiation to which she had been exposed in Hiroshima: lung cancer, liver cancer, uterine cancer, and others.

On the evening of the same day, we told grandmother of mother's death. Long bedridden with radiation-caused cancer, she only muttered weakly, "She was young. I should have died in her place." Ten days later, grandmother died, leaving only the three of us: my father, my younger brother, and me.

At the time of the deaths of my mother and grandmother, I had been expelled from high school because of delinquency. The social awareness and desire to improve the world that mother had tried to instill in us from early childhood had faded in the face of the constant fear of death from radiation-caused cancer. As if kicking back at my cursed fate, throughout high school I lived a life of quarrels and dissipation.

Three months after my mother's death, I fled Hiroshima because I could no longer tolerate existence there. I went to Tokyo, where I found things no better.

I continued a life of dissolute behavior but read voraciously in the hope of finding a reason for living, a definition of the meaning of life and death. I found none and contemplated suicide.

I reentered high school in Tokyo because I wanted to make a fresh start. Still, mental agony plagued me. I was fond of studying and speaking English at the time. One day in a coffee shop frequented by foreigners I happened to meet a Canadian woman who listened attentively to my story. When I finished speaking, she took a newspaper clipping from her handbag and gave it to me to read. It was entitled "Former Delinquent Boy Becomes Number-one Social Leader." The article frequently employed the word faith, which surprised me. Seeing this, the Canadian woman began to talk with me in earnest. Her story lasted for three hours, during which time she made every effort to convince me that it was my duty and mission to try to carry on my mother's antiwar campaign. I trembled with excitement at what she told me.

Returning exhausted to my boardinghouse, I picked up a book I had borrowed from a friend. On the first page, a passage struck me with great impact: "War is barbarous and inhuman. Nothing is more cruel, nothing more tragic."

That book was the first volume of The Human Revolution, by Daisaku Ikeda, a man fervently devoted to promoting the happiness of all peoples. A week after reading the book, on February 27, 1966, I joined a large Buddhist organization and began a life of religious faith that changed everything for me. Although in the past, I was too ashamed and grieved by my destiny to write openly about it, faith in the Law of the Buddha has led me to try to improve myself and to share my experiences in the hope of helping others.

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