When U.S. President Barack Obama made his historic visit to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016, one of the most compelling images broadcast around the world was a photograph of him hugging Hiroshima A-bomb survivor Shigeaki Mori. Many people who saw the photograph commented on the profound significance of the President of the United States embracing a Japanese man who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. The image was lauded as a poignant symbol of reconciliation between two former enemies and progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.
As millions of people around the world watched the scene unfold, perhaps some were wondering why this man was selected from among tens of thousands of hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) to exchange greetings with President Obama after he delivered remarks at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The President even referred specifically to Mori in his remarks when he spoke of “the man who sought out families of Americans killed here, because he believed their loss was equal to his own.”
The international media soon picked up on the story and explained that Mori had made it his life’s work to identify and memorialize the 12 American prisoners of war who were killed by the Hiroshima bombing. Suddenly, everyone knew who Mori was. But American film director Barry Frechette was aware of Mori’s efforts to track down the POWs long before President Obama visited Hiroshima. His documentary “Paper Lanterns” tells the story of how Mori, who narrowly escaped being killed in Hiroshima along with over 100,000 Japanese, has devoted decades of his life to preserving the legacy of the 12 Americans who lost their lives there.
The American airmen who died in Hiroshima were the crew of planes that were shot down after a bombing mission against the Japanese Battleship Haruna at Kure Harbor in the summer of 1945. They were captured and imprisoned at the Chugoku Military Police Headquarters, which was near the epicenter of the atomic bombing. Many of their families were not notified of their fate. Mori worked tirelessly for over 40 years to locate the families of the POWs and let them know what had happened to their loved ones. He also registered the Americans’ photographs at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims and installed a private memorial plaque on the building where they were imprisoned.
The film “Paper Lanterns” focuses not only on what happened to the American airmen and Mori’s efforts to track them down, but also the sense of closure that their relatives felt after they were contacted by Mori and learned the details of the POWs’ fate. Some of the relatives even traveled to Japan to meet Mori and go with him to memorial ceremonies and the sites where the American planes were shot down.
Frechette’s great uncle was the childhood friend of one of the POWs killed in Hiroshima, Navy Airman 3rd Class Normand Brisette. When Frechette heard that the Brisette family had received letters from someone in Japan who wanted to provide information on what happened to Normand and help honor his memory, he was intrigued. “I think when I came across the details of Normand Brissette’s story as well as Mr. Mori’s, I just really felt like someone needed to tell the story of these people,” said Frechette in an email interview with American View. “Someone needed to try and tell it before it was too late, and the details were lost to history. I felt that people needed to understand what happened there.”
Mori was eight years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He found himself in pitch black under the mushroom cloud after the blast blew him off a bridge on his way to school. Mori managed to survive and went on to work for a securities company after graduating from university, although his passion had always been history. He said in the film that he had always “darted about in the darkness of history, intent on trying to shed some light.”
“The American soldiers died in obscurity,” said Mori in a written interview. “Their families weren’t notified and there was no cenotaph for them. I thought that as someone who survived the atomic bombing, I should make it known that they had lost their lives there. I felt at the very least the next of kin had to be informed.” Mori had transferred to a different school right before the bombing and probably would have died if he had still been at his old school, which was adjacent to where the American airmen were held captive.
“I think Mr. Mori felt empathy for the U.S. airmen,” said Frechette. “He knew they were scared, alone, and on the other side of the world. And their fate was the same as thousands of others killed because of the atomic bomb. But what Mr. Mori did was something that was not expected. Why he chose to do it is what makes him so special. He could have just done his research and been satisfied with the results. But instead, he decided to reach out to all the family members in the U.S., and worked a second job to create a memorial for them. Mr. Mori respected each life taken, regardless of nationality. That is what makes him different – a peacemaker.”
Mori was surprised when Frechette suddenly showed up at his home in Hiroshima. “I thought he just wanted me to provide some information,” said Mori. “I think it was my wife who told him about the lantern ceremony. I never thought it would end up becoming the title of the film.” The documentary is named after the Peace Lantern Floating Ceremony held every year on the evening of August 6. Anyone is welcome to write messages of peace on the lanterns that are floated down the Motoyasu River to pass directly in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome. One of the most emotional moments in the film is when Mori accompanies the nephew of Army Staff Sergeant Ralph Neal, one of the POWs killed in Hiroshima, to participate in the lantern ceremony.
“The film shows that the road to peace can start with the smallest of steps,” wrote Frechette. “And that is what Mr. Mori has done for so many.” Frechette said there were a lot of tears at his house when he and his family watched on television as President Obama gave remarks in Hiroshima and hugged Mori. “It was such an incredible moment to witness,” he said. “We knew what it meant to the Moris to be there and to be recognized. But to see Mr. Mori become emotional, and lean in, and then to see them embrace was something so special. That image means so much to all of us.”
“May 27 is a day I will never forget,” said Mori. “On that day, the President and I understood each other completely. I think the American POWs realized then that their sacrifices had contributed to the achievement of peace, that they were not just victims, but heroes. This had finally been acknowledged, after 71 years. When the President hugged me, he was hugging all the people who lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a message of the preciousness of peace.”