A-bomb survivor uses ventriloquism to give voice to wartime experiences

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takako Kotani, right, speaks of her wartime experience with Atchan, her ventriloquist’s dummy, in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture.

YACHIYO, Chiba — A woman who survived the atomic bombing in Hiroshima is using her talent for ventriloquism to share her childhood wartime experiences with a new generation of schoolchildren.

Takako Kotani was only 6 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 near the end of World War II, claiming the lives of her mother and a brother.

Now 82 and residing in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture, Kotani lectures at about 20 schools each year, accompanied by her ventriloquist’s dummy, Atchan.

Kotani has continued to lecture even amid the pandemic, turning to technology to conduct online performances in service of her mission to “pass the baton of peace” to the next generation.

On Nov. 9, Kotani performed for students at a junior high school in the city of Inzai in the prefecture.

“Mommy, the planes are scary,” whimpered Atchan, the ventriloquist’s dummy personifying her little brother, who died in the bombing at age 3.

“Water… water good…,” Atchan said faintly, before closing his eyes.

“Then my brother passed away in our mother’s arms,” Kotani narrated.

Her father died from illness while he was serving in the navy during the war, leaving behind Kotani’s grandmother, mother, elder sister, and two brothers in their house in Hiroshima, about 2.5 kilometers from ground zero. The family had planned to evacuate Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 — the same day the A-bomb devastated the city. But they did not get out in time.

In the moments before the blast, the children were playing in a stream behind the house. Kotani happened to head back inside to get a drink of water from the kitchen, where she saw a blinding flash of light.

Outside, neighbors with charred skin wandered in search of water. The bodies of victims lay collapsed on top of each other.

Kotani’s sister suffered severe burns all over her body, while her elder brother was soaked in blood from shards of glass that had lodged in his head.

Her younger brother had been knocked unconscious. When their mother tried to wipe his blackened face, his skin peeled off. Although he regained consciousness four days later, he died after sipping water from their mother’s hands. The mother later lost her life to leukemia.

After the war, Kotani made an effort to appear cheerful, suppressing her deep sorrow and anguish. Yet even as she coped with these invisible emotional scars, Kotani became the target of snide remarks from a high school classmate, whose face and body were covered in burn scars.

“You can’t call yourself a real hibakusha,” the girl said. “You wouldn’t smile so much if you had scars and were sick like the rest of us.”

“I was suffering too, I had lost my family,” Kotani recalled thinking. But she kept her feelings bottled up for years.

After graduation, Kotani became a nursery school teacher and learned ventriloquism as a way to get the children in her care to open up.

It wasn’t until 2003 that she would first speak publicly about her experience at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Kotani was initially hesitant, but was spurred on by her sister, who said: “You’ve witnessed many people die. Perhaps it’s your duty to speak out on their behalf.”

Kotani started giving lectures at local elementary and junior high schools. In recent years, she has expanded the scope of her activities, and speaks at schools across the nation.

Although her performances are typically held in person, since the pandemic, the octogenarian has begun using videoconference software to conduct remote talks.

“I don’t have much time left,” she said. “I hope as many people as possible will learn the horrors of war through the children [I reach].”