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Peace Activist Passes Away at 90 – Remembering the Energetic Kaz Suyeishi

Call Me Grandma

Kaz Suyeishi would start off her talks on peace by calling out to her audience, “Please call me grandma.” Often in conversations about the atomic bomb, a sense of antagonism emerges between those who dropped the bomb — the United States — and those who suffered the attack — Japan. Those speaking for Japan may charge the United States with taking tens of thousands of innocent, civilian lives, which those speaking for America may try to justify by arguing that the bomb helped end the war. But whenever Suyeishi, herself a hibakusha, warmly asked her audience to call her grandma and to listen to her story, she could instantly find a place in their hearts.

Suyeishi, who devoted her life to peace activism and was the president of the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States (CABS), passed away on June 12th, 2017 in her residence in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance. She was 90 years old at the time of her passing. Suyeishi, a Nisei, was born in 1927, north of Downtown Los Angeles in Pasadena, and received a Japanese education after moving to her father’s home town in Hiroshima. Then in 1945, while she was still a student, Hiroshima was bombed. Afterwards, she married and returned to America, where she gave birth to her daughter.

I first met Mrs. Suyeishi in the middle of 1990. At the time, she lived by herself in a house in Silver Lake, her husband having since passed away and her daughter living with her own family. Suyeishi, an active promoter of peace who had already given many talks at many places, spoke to me about her experiences with the atomic bomb, as well as why she continued to advocate for the peace movement, “I thought that there was no way I would live a long life, and I had given up on having children. But even so, I was able to have a home and a child here in America. We have to make the case to future generations to never start another war. By doing so, I feel that I am repaying the favor of being able to live the life that I have.” To this day, I still vividly remember the vigor that she said all this with, an energy so stunning for a person with such a small, slender body.


Arguing for a World Without War

2012, at a photo shoot for the premiere of the film, Hibakusha. Suyeishi is on the lower right. (Photo ©Keiko Fukuda)

I had a number of opportunities after this to meet with Suyeishi at the venue where CABS held its health inspections for hibakusha. However, it was not until about a decade had passed and I had lost her contact information that we unexpectedly reunited at a special exhibition held at the Japanese American National Museum. The exhibition was an advance screening of the animated film Hibakusha, made by a group of young, non-Nikkei and based on Suyeishi’s experiences surviving the atomic bomb. Suyeishi was there, her small, slender body just as filled with energy and vigor as it always had been. After an interview with the directors, Suyeishi furtively told me, “If I’m being honest, the film isn’t really a perfectly accurate depiction of the Japanese culture it talks about, but if it can make even just a few more people aware of what the atom bomb did, then I’ll be satisfied.”

Suyeishi travelled everywhere she could to make her case for a world without war. I wondered if there was anything I could do to help this woman who poured all of her energy into the peace movement. I ended up offering to drive her to event venues or anywhere else she needed to go, since she had been living all this time in the highly car-dependent city of Los Angeles without a drivers license. She took me up on the offer immediately, asking me to drive her to an event at the consul general’s residence. On the way there, though, she talked with more energy than I could have imagined. I spent the entire ride clenching my steering wheel, desperate not to get the 80 year-old activist into an accident, while all the while she sat off to my side talking non-stop. At times, her energy made me wish I had a white flag to wave.


A Letter from Mrs. Suyeishi

After this, I tried to call Suyeishi a number of times but received no response. Then, towards the end of November 2016, I received a letter. The sender was Mrs. Suyeishi. In hand-writing that started to falter partway through, she asked me if I could drive her to a party at the consul general’s. I replied by calling her immediately, and then went to see her that day. She seemed unsteady even just walking out of her house. Apparently, she had had a fall shortly beforehand. Even so, her mind was as sharp as always, and she talked the entire trip, telling me about her childhood in Hiroshima and what it was like starting her work with CABS.

When we arrived, Suyeishi sat down in a chair and told me to go out and talk with whoever I knew. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, “As long as some people who know me come over and say hello, I’ll be perfectly happy sitting here.” Grateful for her thoughtfulness and consideration, I went and enjoyed the evening with my acquaintances.

Dec. 2016, a commemorative photo with a joruri puppet at a party at the Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles’ residence. (Photo ©Keiko Fukuda).

When I dropped Suyeishi back off at her house in Torrance, she took a package out of her bag. “This is high-quality nori from Hiroshima,” she told me straightforwardly, “It’s hard to get your hands on. It tastes really good, so please, be sure to try it.” Giving me no time to even begin to protest, she pushed the nori into my hands and then went inside, holding on tightly to her cane. That was the last time I saw her.

Half a year later, on June 15, I received a call from a mutual friend, Akutagawa prize-winner Fumiko Kometani, informing me of Mrs. Suyeishi’s death. Kometani had previously held an anti-nuclear weapons event at her home town’s high school, with Suyeishi as the keynote speaker. “She started off, of course, with ‘Call me grandma.’ That was really great,” Kometani reminisced. She told me that, since she had not been holding any events, she had gone years without seeing Suyeishi.

Her death is a great loss, but I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had half a year prior to meet with her and hear her speak so energetically. She seemed to me then like a young, curious tomboy of a girl who had just happened to be in an older woman’s body. Part of me still even feels that one day, when I least expect it, another letter will come asking for a ride.

 

© 2017 Keiko Fukuda

a-bomb hibakusha hiroshima Kaz Suyeishi kibei nisei