Climbing up the family tree

Akira “Ken” Nakano is pictured above with his granddaughters Susanna and Aneesa Conine-Nakano in 2002 at the Georgia Botanical Gardens. Nakano was a Hiroshima bomb survivor and was passionate about helping others affected by World War II. Photo courtesy of Daniel Nakano.
By ANEESA CONINE-NAKANO – Digital Managing Editor

Digital Managing Editor Aneesa Conine-Nakano reflects on the life of her grandfather Akira “Ken” Nakano, a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor who dedicated his life to service.

Akira “Ken” Nakano was born on Jan. 3, 1931 in Portland, Oregon to the Furutas family. Shortly after he was born, his birth-father died. His mother, who already had three children, decided to let close family friends, Masagiro Nakano and Ritasuyo Okidote, adopt Ken when he was about 2 years old.

When I began learning about my Ojiichan (grandfather), I didn’t know the details of his early life. It seemed as though everything I knew about him was blurry and I knew bits and pieces, but never enough to see the whole picture.

In 1937 at the age of 6, he moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he remained until 1952. By then, there was a strong negative media perception of the Japanese in the U.S. following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. This also catalysed Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933, putting them in a state of isolation.

In class we would learn about the bombing on Pearl Harbor and how the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped end the war. However, it wasn’t black and white like that. It seemed like the Japanese government and the citizens had no distinction in our history books. I always wondered if this is why there was such strong anti-sentiments towards Japanese-Americans in WWII.

On Aug. 8, 1945 when the U.S. dropped “Little Boy,” the first nuclear weapon used in war, on Hiroshima, Ken was farming with his classmates about 1.5 miles from where the bomb detonated. He recounted seeing “two shiny bombers fly high overhead, and then the white parachute that slowed the fall of the bomb so the planes had time to dive away.”

“Few seconds later, tremendous explosive sound and wind knock everybody,” Nakano said in an interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2001. “Slowly, open eye and saw we are surrounded by smoke and fire curtain. We stood up and found out our left face was black and 2-inch square skin is peeled. A little hurt. Also, my left hand was burned.”

His home was four miles from where the bomb detonated, far enough to be partially spared. Through the ruins and bodies, he made his way to his home taking a route to avoid the worst of the damages. He said the worst part of it all was when he stepped on the arm of a dead child.

When he arrived at his home, his mother and family were relieved to see him alive. Fortunately, they had access to American medicine to help with his burns, which would not heal for months after the bombing.

My father recounts that my grandfather spent time fishing after the bomb, because his school was closed recovering from the damages and casualties. When he returned, he found that around half of his classmates died either in the bombing or from radiation poisoning that followed.

At the time he was 15, the age I am right now when his world was turned upside down. I cannot imagine what he went through and I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend his struggles. Sometimes I wonder how I didn’t know more about him and the bombing. I would think that the trauma of an event like that would leave visible emotional scars. Maybe he was really good at hiding them.

After he finished high school, he attended a university in Japan, earning a degree in business before joining the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He moved back to the U.S. to attend the University of Washington, receiving a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1961. Following his graduation, he began working for Boeing as an electrical engineer, where he worked for around 34 years, until his retirement in 1995.

Founders of the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee Shosuke Sasaki, Henry Miyatake, Chuck Kato, Mike Nakata and Ken Nakano reunited on May 13, 1990 in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Densho.

Some of his life choices would confuse others. I can’t imagine it was common for a boy who survived the Hiroshima bombing to join the U.S. Army. The more I learned about his character, however, the more all of this made sense.

Nakano was the co-founder of the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee (SERC) which supported the Seattle Plan, calling for individual reparations to those “affected by the World War II exclusion and incarceration”  working with the former Boeing engineers Henry Miyatake, Mike Nakata, retired financial analyst Shosuke Sasaki and civil engineer Chuck Kato.

My grandfather didn’t want to be resentful and angry, he wanted to make a difference. The SERC was a way for him to help out Japanese-Americans who suffered from the internment camps. He knew they were wrong and felt strongly that it should be known that it was a mistake.

He also aided fellow Hibakusha in the Seattle-Tacoma area and Hanford Downwinders get health check-ups from physicians meeting with the Hanford Health Effects Subcommittee (HHES), which met from 1994 to 2004. The HHES was a federal advisory board that addressed Hanford radiation exposure health effects.

When asked, Nakano said he thought the bombing was necessary because it helped end the war, an opinion unpopular in Japan. He added, “Japan had time to surrender before that happened. We in Hiroshima never thought Japan would surrender.”However, he also stated many times that weapons like that should not be used on innocent civilians, saying, “In America, you don’t do that kind of civilian thing,” and that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used against human beings.

My Ojiichan was able to move on from the bombings. He was able to forgive. He actually once met with one of the Navy sailors, Eugene Morgan, who delivered “Little Boy” to a strategic Pacific island. Morgan had a part in delivering the bomb, but my grandfather held no resentments. He embraced Morgan and they both said they never wanted something like the bombings to happen again.

Akira “Ken” Nakano died on March 2, 2009 and is buried at the Tohama National Cemetery in Kent, Washington.

My Ojiichan passed away in March 2009 from heart issues and his health decline following his stroke in 2000.

When I think of my grandfather, I remember his caring, thoughtful personality. His life during the war, his involvement with post-war redress and with service projects was previously unknown to me. Growing up, when we would visit, he would take me and my sister to museums and zoos. He listened to us talk about anything. Above all else, he was patient,  generous and never wanted the spotlight on him.

All of these things began to make a lot of sense when I learned about his life during and after the war. He never made the redress and service about him, focusing more on other survivors who were affected.

All the research and talk with my family about him has allowed me to know my grandfather better now, than I did when he was alive. This is hard because I feel closer to him now, but will never be able to talk to him again. This occurred to me early on in this story, making me wonder whether to continue.

However, like my Ojiichan, I want people to remember all of the suffering and pain of the Hibakusha, the Downwinders and everyone affected by the nuclear weapons, the internment camps and the antipathy towards Japanese civilians, because the U.S. as a whole needs to learn from our mistakes.

In November, Roanoke mayor David Bowers commented,  “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”


Bowers fails to remember the facts and lessons that should’ve been learned by now. This thinking is what caused over 100,000 Japanese-Americans citizens-not “foreign nationals”- to be interned-not “sequestered”-for years. The interned Japanese-Americans were stripped of their basic human rights because the U.S. government was unable to realize that these American citizens were innocent people, discriminated against because they looked like the “enemy”.

If people begin to think like this, then were the efforts to redress Japanese-American citizens, recognizing the unconstitutionality of the internment in vain?

I don’t want them to be.

I am taking away from my grandfather’s story that I want to be more like him, a intellectual, generous and caring person. He recognized how the issues of Japanese-Americans, Hibakusha, Downwinders and countless others relate to inequalities that other groups in and out of the U.S. face. I want to understand this and stand up for others who are currently being discriminated against, carrying on his legacy.

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