High above The City, Jack Dairiki enjoys a panoramic view from the midtown apartment he shares with his wife, Jun. It’s a world away from the atomic bomb blast he experienced as an American teenager, exiled in Japan.
”A fifteen-minute train delay saved my life and the other students’ lives,” said Dairiki. “Otherwise we would’ve been marching toward the city.”
Dairiki is among the hibakusha, the Japanese word for a survivor of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the term has since been adopted to describe other victims of nuclear disaster, like the event at Fukushima). Despite his exposure near the hypocenter, at 88 years old, he enjoys excellent health.
“I’ve never been sick. I don’t know why, they don’t know why,” said Dairiki of the Japanese doctors from whom he still receives stateside visits to monitor his progress.
“I keep my weight down and I exercise. It might be my faith,” said the long-standing member of The Buddhist Church of San Francisco, the first temple of its kind to be established here in the 1800s.
Dairiki is an old-time Californian: His maternal grandfather was a hotelier and grocer in Sacramento. But in 1941, as a firstborn son, he was called with his father to the rural village outside of Hiroshima where his father was originally from.
“We received a letter in the mail that my grandfather was ill,” he explained. “We planned a summer vacation trip.”
Traveling by ship to Yokohama, they proceeded to Tokyo and into the lush, green countryside where aunts, uncles and cousins he didn’t even realize existed eagerly awaited the arrival of their American relatives.
“My experience of seeing Japan for the first time was I noticed everything was petite: The cars, the railroad,” said Dairiki, while pouring into crystal glasses water and green tea for us to share. He recalled the culture shock upon his arrival.
“The only time I ate with chopsticks was in Chinese restaurants,” he said. He was unaccustomed to taking off his shoes and sitting on the floor, to the sliding doors and the tatami mats.
“I criticized my father for taking his shoes off,” he remembered. “We don’t do that in the United States, I told him, but my father had grown up in Japan. It was like being home for him.”
One summer of running through rice fields and swimming in streams passed quickly. Dairiki was ready to return: to Sacramento, to Lincoln Grammar School, to his mother, his brothers and his sister. And then, World War II.
“My father tried to secure our passage back and was told we couldn’t go,” he said. At home, his mother and siblings had been rounded up and taken to the Tulelake detention center; his younger brother died while in custody.
“We didn’t know any of it at the time,” he said.
Life went on: He bonded with his Japanese family, made friends and enrolled in school, though he didn’t have the language skills. Students were conscripted to work in a Hiroshima factory making rifle and airplane parts as part of the war effort. Then on August 6, 1945, the children waited on the platform for their train that never came: Dairiki saw the bomber overhead and heard the sirens. He experienced the rumble, the proverbial blinding flash and the terrible wind that shook the windows right out of buildings.
The students were told to take shelter and eventually sent home. But as Dairiki emerged into the daylight, the display of human suffering was too much for him to bear. He walked in shock instead of riding a ghost train for the 10 miles to his grandmother’s house.
“I can never forget the image nor the smell of death,” wrote Dairiki in a recollection published by the Buddhist Churches of America in its publication, Wheel of Dharma.
“The war ended. It took me three years to get the documents to return home,” he said. His other grandmother at home sponsored him, “To prove that I was an American citizen.”
Dairiki resumed high school in Sacramento. He pursued his education and ultimately graduated with a degree in architecture from Cal Berkeley. In 1950, as part of his training, he took a free-drawing class.
“This is what came out,” he said, holding up his memory sketch of what we recognize as the mushroom cloud.
In 1964 he married San Franciscan, Jun Nakahara; she and her family had also survived internment. The pair had actually crossed paths as children at his grandfather’s hotel in Sacramento. Dairiki worked for an architecture firm and she for an oil company; they bought a house and for 40 years lived in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood until they downsized into the high-rise with the million dollar view. Every five years they visit Japan where they still have family. I ask how the Dairikis otherwise enjoy their retirement years.
“We try to keep healthy. Sometimes Jun will take the Geary bus all the way to the end of the line and walks back. I play tennis everyday,” he said. Everyday? “Pretty much,” he said.
Dairiki has no residual bitterness or anger from that day 74 years ago; rather, he’s devoted to living peacefully and in harmony with nature and his fellows.
“On a nice weekend, we take a bus to the base of the bridge and walk across. It looks like a long bridge but it isn’t. It only takes 40 minutes to cross,” he said of the Golden Gate Bridge “And then we go to Sausalito — it’s 90 percent downhill — and we have a nice lunch there.” They return to The City by ferry.
“We use our Clipper cards,” said Dairiki. “That’s what we do.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan