For the 20th year, Rev. Dr. T.K. Nakagaki organized a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. When he first proposed the idea in 1994, many Japanese Americans were hesitant.
“They were concerned that such a ceremony would be negative toward Americans,” says Rev. Nakagaki. “But I was never about blaming anyone for the war. My message has always been about the abolition of nuclear weapons.”
Rev. Nakagaki’s 20th Interfaith Peace Gathering took place August 5 at West Park Presbyterian Church in the Upper West Side and brought together religious leaders from Judaism (Rabbi Michael Feinberg), Islam (Imam Shamsi Ali), Hinduism (Swamini Lalitambika Devi), Christianity (Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt) and Buddhism (Venerable Dhammadipa Sak), uniting in prayer for world peace.
“Find moments of perfect peace in daily interactions.” – Swamini Lalitambika Devi
“Even one hundred years from now, it will still be important to talk about it.” – Katsuo Takeda
In addition to messages of finding peace in the face of tragedy, the ceremony featured stirring musical performances by Tenri Gagaku Music Society of New York, which added an ethereal quality to the proceedings; Japan Choral Harmony Choir TOMO’s rendition of “Kusunoki” by Masaharu Fukuyama; Japanese singer/songwriter Mika singing “Sukiyaki” in English and Japanese; and soulful jazz by 14-time Grammy Award nominee Toshiko Akiyoshi on piano with her husband, saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin. Participating in the ceremony for the ninth year was Japanese pop star Shinji Harada, accompanied by master percussionist Mataro Misawa.
The ceremony began with “SEI” (“life”), a performance art piece by composer Carman Moore and dancer/choreographer Kiori Kawai, in which Kawai was trapped in a colorful cocoon before emerging at the hopeful end. The dance would later prompt Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt to say, “Just like the dancer who had to struggle for freedom, let us struggle together.”
Tak Furumoto and Takeshi Yamaguchi read messages from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. Furumoto, who has participated in all 20 of Rev. Nakagaki’s Interfaith Peace Gatherings, has a unique perspective on World War II. His family was incarcerated in the US as a result of Executive Order 9066, and Furumoto was born in Tule Lake Segregation Center. He moved with his family to Hiroshima four months after the bombing, and he witnessed first-hand the effects of nuclear radiation as several of his family members developed cancer.
Tomiko Morimoto West delivered the keynote address, giving the audience her personal account of the events of August 6, 1945, which was difficult but necessary to hear. West was a 13-year-old in Hiroshima when she saw a B-29 overhead and the flash of the a-bomb’s explosion. She encountered people whose skin was melting off of their bodies and crossed a river filled with the dead. She found her mother days after the blast, identifying her by a piece of her clothing that managed to stay in tact. She cremated her own grandfather. Still, she says she was able to live a good, long life, one of strength and perseverance under extraordinary circumstances.
Holding the ceremony at West Park Presbyterian Church was fitting considering its historical significance. Rev. Robert Brashear, pastor of West Park, noted that from the earliest days of the church, which was built in 1889, it was a center of social justice, which is evident in the inscription from Zechariah 4:6 above the church’s door: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Rev. Brashear says West Park was the first church to open its doors to the LGBT community and actively participates in Meals on Wheels and initiatives to address homelessness. In 1982 the church provided the use of the balconies in its sanctuary as offices for SANE and the Freeze, two grassroots organizations in the anti-nuclear weapons movement. That year more than one million people protested against nuclear weapons in New York, the largest political demonstration in US history. Rev. Brashear himself was among the protesters, and he pointed out a group of Japanese dancers with drums and parasols to a friend. Hhis friend remarked, “Who would know better?”
In his parting words Rev. Nakagaki said that talking about the atomic bombings during World War II and listening to the accounts of the Hibakusha will eventually prevent the horrors of August 6 and 9, 1945, from happening again. ”The tragedy [of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] became a source of peace,” says Rev. Nakagaki. “Knowing the tragedy itself is finding peace.”
The Peace Concert “Global Harmony” and English simulcast of the Nagasaki Peace Ceremony will take place on Friday, August 8 at West Park Presbyterian Church. Click here for details. For more pictures from the Interfaith Peace Gathering, please visit JapanCulture•NYC’s Flickr page.