Annelise Giseburt '16: An American Hiroshima-jin's 2017 (And After)

Annelise Giseburt is the 2016-2018 Shansi Fellow at UNITAR, ANT-Hiroshima, Green Legacy Hiroshima. This is her second year narrative.

I came to Hiroshima to learn its history. Perhaps, to a certain extent, I’ve accomplished that goal. But over the last year or so, I’ve become increasingly interested in the history I’m witnessing.


During that time, Hiroshima occasionally felt like the center of the world. At others, it felt insurmountably removed, and no amount of modern technology could bring me closer to a homeland going through, well, a lot.


I don’t mean to make dramatic, sweeping statements. Let’s break this down, starting with the obvious: politics. After Donald Trump’s election, I was so frustrated with the U.S.’s regression — no, with its inability to change. In the beginning of 2017, I wanted to hold a sign and wear a pussy hat, to call my representatives, to help fill up a town hall or an airport — basically, to be physically present in the United States.


As spring progressed into summer, something more dramatic than even the intro to this report started consuming both the U.S. and East Asia: North Korean missiles. Suddenly, the gap between the news and my life in Hiroshima felt much shorter as my new knowledge of (as we say here) “the real conditions of an atomic bombing” began to seem increasingly relevant, even if I wasn’t sure how to put my knowledge to good use.


However, those months brought more than just threats of “fire and fury.” On 7 July 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was passed at the United Nations General Assembly. If ratified by 50 nations, the new treaty will make nuclear weapons illegal under international law. Use, threat of use, testing, development, stockpiling — it will all be prohibited.


It’s rather embarrassing, but I was completely blindsided by this new development. You mean to tell me that there was enough momentum from both governments and civil society organizations not only for a treaty-creation conference to happen but for said conference to produce actual results? I had no idea that the ban treaty negotiations were the result of years of global campaigning based on a renewed focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. I had no idea how stagnant and insufficient the NPT had become; I had almost never spared it a thought.


What’s more, basically every other American I’ve spoken to about the TPNW has been similarly in the dark. After searching for a reason, my only explanation is that we are not taught to question the way things are, nor are we informed of news that would facilitate such questioning. Our schools, media, and government explicitly and implicitly say that nuclear weapons (and technologies capable of launching them halfway across the world) should only be in the hands of the chosen few. Of course, this is hardly a shocking revelation; the powerful aren’t in the habit of changing systems of power. The majority of American buy into this system, or at least we cannot imagine an alternative.


In Hiroshima, I can imagine an alternative. And I feel more empowered because of it.


In October 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work campaigning for the TPNW. As you might expect, at this point Hiroshima reached fever pitch, and ICAN dominated both local news and my conversations with local friends. (A favorite memory of mine from this time is attending a dinner party and seeing a waiter bring out desserts while saying “Congrats on the Nobel Prize!” It was a slightly surreal experience.)


The writing around the plate reads “Congrats on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!”​

To give a short explanation, ICAN is a coalition of civil society organizations from around the world. Its goal is the abolition of nuclear weapons through an international ban treaty, reinforced by a shift in global norms, namely that it shouldn’t be acceptable for anyone to possess nuclear weapons, much less use them. Representatives from ICAN’s partner organizations, including some that make up a steering committee, meet periodically to discuss the campaign's strategy, but partner organizations have a relatively high level of freedom with regard to how they campaign in their respective countries. ICAN only has a handful of full-time staff, but this small group coordinates a global campaign that is energetic, tech-savvy, and diverse.


A message of support to ICAN from Hiroshima (December 2017)​

ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn visited Japan in early 2018 for a lecture series, as well as a number of campaigners’ meetings. During her stop in Hiroshima, I had the opportunity to hear her give a talk, during which she commented on the role of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the current disarmament movement. People here often say that Hiroshima’s mission is to convey the realities of nuclear weapons, most often through personal stories. Fihn took that message a step further, saying that stories must be connected to action, especially to put pressure on politicians and organizations to change policy. She said that such action is the best way to honor the hibakusha and build upon the legacy of their work.   


Back in the U.S., by now there have more changes than just travel bans, damaging climate decisions, and attacks on healthcare. From across the ocean, I’ve watched proudly as MeToo crests fourth-wave feminism and as high schoolers push for concrete steps toward ending gun violence. “The way things are” is being questioned and reimagined in so many different ways.

Learning about Hiroshima and slowly beginning to take part in the local networks here sometimes still feels like I’m focusing on something minor and remote. I wonder how I can appeal to an American to question our country’s use of war and weaponry, past and present. With so many ongoing crises and causes, who has the time to think about nuclear weapons, even if they might be otherwise positively disposed to?


But the more I learn, the more connections I see. Nuclear waste poisons the environment and the people living near it — including in my home state. Nuclear test sites have often been used without regard for the safety of nearby indigenous communities. These days, women are taking the lead on nuclear issues, and they aren’t afraid to point out the connections to gender therein. When I think about the intersection of these issues, I don’t feel disconnected or as if what I have to say (when I can find the words) isn’t relevant. In various ways, nuclear technologies affect everyone, and everyone is entitled to an opinion on them.


As I write this, North and South Korea have just vowed to officially end the Korean War, and everyone is wondering whether Trump will put his foot in it at a critical moment. Will the Korean peninsula denuclearize, or will we keep hearing about missile launches (and receiving Don’t Panic emails from Shansi)?


As I write this, the TPNW has over 50 signatories and nine ratifications, with certainly more on the way. Will 50 nations eventually ratify, turning the treaty to law?


As I wait for more history to unfold before me, I’ll continue learning. With the help of my friends, I’ll keep studying both past and present; I feel I can touch both. Ignorance, complacency, and hopelessness can no longer describe this American. With broader and more nuanced vision, I hope to make good use of what I learn.