As Hiroshima prepares to mark on Saturday the 77th anniversary of the A-bomb dropped on it by the United States in 1945, some of its residents will be brushing up their English and practicing phrases to describe the horrific devastation of the attack to foreign visitors -- once they eventually return.
The initiative has been months in preparation, having been launched under the auspices of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in February. Aimed at helping local people answer questions from foreign visitors curious about the city's experience of the A-bombing, it provides a series of conversational scenarios that might take place, for instance, at the cenotaph for atomic-bomb victims in the city.
The step marks just one of the ways that the city has been adapting to the special challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely hampered its activism in pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons due to the reduced movement of people since 2020, both within Japan and coming from abroad. Nagasaki, the other Japanese city targeted by the United States for a nuclear attack days after Hiroshima was hit, has been grappling with similar issues.
One major example of how getting the antinuclear message across has become more difficult has been the dramatic fall in visitors to the Hiroshima museum and a similar facility in Nagasaki.
The two museums have offered places to study the devastation and the aftermath of the bombings with detailed displays, including objects exposed to the bombs. Not only tourists but high-ranking officials from abroad have visited the museums in the past, and they have functioned as key parts of the cities' strategies for communicating with both foreigners and citizens in the rest of Japan alike.
The Hiroshima museum used to receive more than 1 million visitors a year, but that figure dropped to about 329,000 in fiscal 2020 and 406,000 in fiscal 2021. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, meanwhile, used to see 600,000 to 700,000 visitors annually but welcomed only some 310,000 in fiscal 2021.
Before COVID-19, the museums had also been hosting talks by atomic bomb survivors known as hibakusha as well as organizing exhibitions abroad, but all these activities have faced difficulties due to travel restrictions under the pandemic.
The loss of opportunities for exchange has come at a time when concerns over the possibility of nuclear warfare have risen, with President Vladimir Putin raising the specter of the use of Russia's own arsenal as it prosecutes its war in Ukraine.
For Masuhiro Hosoda, the Hiroshima museum's deputy director, the threat means that "our mission to convey the reality of the atomic bombings is becoming more urgent."
The same sense of urgency was expressed by the two cities' mayors in June when they attended the first meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, with both citing Russia's nuclear threat in their appeals for action to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Since the pandemic started, the two museums have moved to offer the talks by hibakusha online, with the Hiroshima museum preparing English subtitles to go with them.
Nagasaki City has also boosted its online communications by renewing the city's peace and atomic bomb website in July 2021, with a particular focus on peace education. It includes exhibits from the Nagasaki museum and videos introducing the city's A-bomb-hit remains.
The Hiroshima museum's initiative to offer help to locals who wish to engage with foreign visitors about the city's A-bomb experience, meanwhile, marks the latest evolution of a messaging program that it has run for years.
It took form initially as a program for high school students preparing to go overseas on study-abroad trips before being transformed into seminars for members of the general public who had a certain level of English-language skills. The pandemic, however, disrupted the holding of in-person seminars, just as it was making so much else the museum does more difficult.
But the pause was also an opportunity.
According to Miki Nagahira, 46, who is in charge of the current initiative, the booklet handed out at the seminars from 2016 until this year contained a vast amount of information, including specialized knowledge of the bomb and the aftereffects of radiation exposure. The requirements in terms of English-language ability were correspondingly high.
The current version, a 29-page "digital textbook," simplifies the information and lays out examples of possible English conversations with Japanese translations, along with grammatical tips and a plethora of useful English expressions.
Among the material are descriptions of Hiroshima's landmarks, including the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park, where former U.S. President Barack Obama visited in 2016 and made a speech to outline the threat to humanity from nuclear weapons.
The program is now effectively a self-study initiative in which applicants can obtain the textbook and audio data after registering with the museum's website.
"I hope that (people) acquire both knowledge of Hiroshima and the English-language skills to convey it to others" and commit themselves to contributing to the abolition of nuclear weapons, Nagahira said.
Nagahira, who attended graduate school in Hawaii in the field of second-language studies, says her background studying the challenges of teaching and learning a second language helped her create the foundation for the new initiative.
"I have always wanted to do this, and I am glad that I was able to create it from what I have experienced," she said.
An applicant in her 30s who lives in Hiroshima and took part in a survey conducted by the museum said, "Since the content is familiar to everyone, I was motivated to learn it in case a few of my friends who live abroad came to Hiroshima. There is a good selection of listening materials to practice dialogue."