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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Humanizing History: Creating Nagasaki Atomic History and the Present

by Paula Curtis on 2021-07-21T08:51:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Dr. Aleksandr Sklyar, Visiting Assistant Professor in University Studies, Colgate University


Goals and Overview

The 1945 mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are images ever-present in American national education, imagination, and pride. Unfortunately, few Americans associate the grey dust inside each mushroom cloud with pulverized houses or vaporized human flesh and bones. It is common for the casualty figures to be listed alongside these images–140,000 dead in Hiroshima; 74,000 dead in Nagasaki. But what teaching tools can prompt educators and students alike to think about the bones and ashes of those 214,000 individuals, the remains of their homes, and family members obliterated by the extreme and indiscriminate heat, blast, and radiation of these weapons? How can we hear and learn from the thoughts and experiences of actual atomic bombing survivor-victims, especially now that so many have passed away? Nagasaki Atomic History and the Present (NAHP) seeks to introduce students at American high schools, colleges, and universities to the human stories of living through a nuclear Holocaust from underneath the mushroom cloud. By centering the voices of the victim-survivors —people who actually experienced nuclear warfare not as a hypothetical scenario, but as a lived reality—Nagasaki Atomic History and the Present serves as a tool for students to begin or continue doing the hard and painful work of learning historical human truths.

NAHP prompts students to imagine themselves standing together with Nagasaki survivors on the ground, as they saw the blinding flash and heard the earth-shattering roar of a detonation they could not comprehend. Through first-person testimonials, scientific examination of debris, digital mapping of the disaster, and more, our project seeks to have students understand how flesh, bone, glass, and stone were vaporized and warped by heat as hot as the surface of the sun; how survivor-victims and those who died were blown unconscious by the blast or impaled by flying debris; and how living life as a survivor-victim of American nuclear warfare led so many to become anti-nuclear peace activists. If this still feels too distant and disconnected from students’ realities, we encourage students to simulate detonating nuclear weapons over their hometowns, so that they can better understand survivors’ testimonials and postwar anti-nuclear peace activism.

At the core of the NAHP site is a small curated archive of original interviews with Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors. The entire collection is subtitled and can be accessed through the “Videos” tab. Fully time-stamped English transcripts of the Japanese-language videos are provided on each video’s page to make these materials more accessible.

The NAHP site also features two structured “Paths” through two “Topics,” titled “The Day of the Bombing” and “Bringing it Home.” The “Day of the Bombing” path features videos that introduce students to the physical effects of nuclear weapons on humans and human-inhabited environments through a 20-minute lecture by Professor Karen Harpp (Geology and Peace and Conflict Studies, Colgate University) and brief excerpts from the experiences of Nagasaki survivors (approximately 30 minutes, divided into shorter videos). These structured paths serve as teaching modules. This curated, path-focused approach was inspired by “The Core Story” approach of, an excellent teaching resource on Japanese American internment during World War II.

The “Bringing it Home” module is structured around the NUKEMAP simulator activity, in which students can simulate detonating different yields of nuclear weapons on their hometowns or places they are more familiar with than Nagasaki or Hiroshima, thus, hopefully, “bringing home” the messages and experiences of atomic bombing survivors.

NUKEMAP Simulator shows the effects that a Nagasaki-sized “Fat Man” bomb would have if dropped on New Haven, Connecticut.


Understanding the Pain of Others

There exist many photographic depictions of the “effects of radiation on humans.” Photographs of scarred Japanese survivor-victims have literally become textbook knowledge about the effects of the bombs’ heat, blast, and radiation on human flesh (images featured in textbooks, encyclopedias, and other reference materials, as in the “Nuclear Effects on Humans” section of As they should, these photographs tend to highlight the visually gruesome effects of heat, blast, and radiation on human bodies, including bloody wounds, Keloid scars, melted flesh, and charred remains. It is crucial that students know these effects, so we also explain them on our site, mainly in Professor Harpp’s short lecture.

(Right: Professor Karen Harpp (Geology and Peace and Conflict Studies, Colgate University) explains the heat effects of the atomic bombs.)

But we should also seek to move beyond these images in two ways. First, we should think critically about these images and the kind of knowledge they produce. The individuals in such generally-shared photographs are often unnamed and untraceable. The humans in the photos are referred to as “a young woman,” “a survivor,” “this patient,” “the victim’s skin,” “a victim.” Rarely can one uncover the story of these people's lives before or after the photograph. The camera, the images, and their captions offer an antiseptic, medical, scientific gaze. Second, we should engage with survivor-victims; we should seek to hear their voices and see the images that survivor-victims themselves created.

Mr. Katsuji Yoshida is one survivor whose story is presented on the NAHP site. Mr. Yoshida passed away on April 1, 2010, at the age of 78, several months prior to our arrival in Japan to film interviews in July and August 2010. His story was therefore told to us through a kamishibai “paper picture theater play,” performed by Mr. Yoshida’s good friend and Nagasaki peace volunteer, Ms. Junko Shiratori (seen below). The images and narrative of the kamishibai were created by middle school students at Sakurababa Middle School in Nagasaki after they heard Mr. Yoshida speak.

Peace volunteer Junko Shiratori reads “We Will Tell You About an Atomic Bombing,” a kamishibai presentation (paper picture theater play). July 2010.

Mr. Yoshida was thirteen years old when he experienced the atomic bombing. After briefly marking the day and time of the Nagasaki bombing, the kamishibai quickly moves into Mr. Yoshida’s first-person perspective:

I had no idea what had happened! When I came to, I found out I had been thrown into the middle of a rice paddy. All seven of us had lost the skin from our faces. It had burned and fallen off, leaving the flesh underneath visible.

Mr. Yoshida and his friends then headed to the river.

We reached the river, where large numbers of people had gathered to drink. The banks were covered with dead bodies and a layer of oil floated on the surface of the water. People still found it irresistible, though, and while drinking that oily water, they would suddenly fall down and die.

Mr. Yoshida’s mother found him at a school, which had been turned into a triage station. He and others were so badly burned that they could not be recognized. So his mother went up to each body, whispering, “Katsuji? Katsuji?” until she found him.

Kamishibai portrayal of Mr. Yoshida’s mother finding him after the bombing.

After they returned home, she took arduous care of him. Pus poured out of his wounds, attracting flies that would lay eggs on his body. The wounds would then fester with maggots, which Mr. Yoshida’s mother picked out with wooden chopsticks, each time causing him excruciating pain. In time, she nursed him back to health, but the pain of living as a survivor continued. People on the street and in the train would stare and whisper.

Each time someone saw my face I would be laughed at, stared at in contempt, or ridiculed, and every time that happened, I would go and hide myself away in my house.

Kamishibai portrayal of strangers glaring at Mr. Yoshida on the train.

In time, Mr. Yoshida gathered the courage and conviction that he must continue telling his story to the current generation. Mr. Yoshida’s story concludes with the words he used to finish all of his presentations:

“The basis of peace is for people to understand the pain of others.”

This kamishibai is one way that atomic bombing survivors’ stories live on, even as more and more survivors pass away. We hope that through NAHP, Mr. Yoshida’s story can be shared with English speakers who may not be able to go to Nagasaki in person.

The Making of Nagasaki Atomic History and the Present (NAHP)

NAHP’s process and mission necessitated digital modes of collaboration with a dispersed and diverse network of grassroots volunteers on cross-cultural and cross-linguistic issues of social justice, activism, and historical memory. Though this project was completed in 2016, here I will discuss the workflows and technological decisions that guided us, as they may be useful for others hoping to construct online forms of digital exhibition and research. I also explain the rationale and process for enrolling over thirty transcription, translation, and video subtitle synchronization volunteers across the globe in the mission of the project.

NAHP comprises one branch of the post-production (video editing, subtitling, etc.) and distribution stages of what began as the Nagasaki-America Peace Project (NAPP) in summer 2010. The original “Nagasaki-America Peace Project” was one of one hundred annual Kathryn Davis Fellowships for Peace, which challenge young students to come up with projects that “bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.” As graduating seniors at Colgate University, a friend and I proposed to collect Nagasaki survivors’ voices in video interviews and bring them back to US high-school and college students through various digital projects. I focused on creating an educational website meant for use in American high school and college classrooms, which, in 2016, became a reality with NAHP.

The NAHP core team consisted of two undergraduate summer research students, Georgia Butcher (Colgate ‘17) and Ben Kelsey (Colgate ‘18), and myself (Colgate ‘10, then a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor). Professor Karen Harpp was instrumental in bringing this team together for ten weeks in Hamilton, New York. Daily technological and logistical support was generously provided to us by copyright, video, internet, and other technology specialists at the Colgate libraries, Information Technology Services, and the Digital Learning and Media Center. Georgia, Ben, and I worked on video editing and website design on-site while coordinating a worldwide network of volunteers who were helping us to transcribe, translate, close caption, and subtitle our videos. In film terminology, all of this is referred to as the “post-production” portion of a project.


From Raw Footage to Japanese-only “To Be Transcribed” Videos

Curating full raw footage of interviews that may last well over one hour (and could sometimes even extend over a whole afternoon of tea and chatting) posed a significant challenge. We decided that for our goals, we needed to create relatively full-length, Japanese-only cuts of the interviews, which would then be transcribed by Japanese-speaking volunteers in their entirety and then translated into English.

Rationale: A key aspect of the undergraduate students’ summer research program was learning qualitative research methodology, which necessitated deliberating on which portions of a long work to include in the final presentation, which to omit, and why. This kind of qualitative deliberation process cannot take place unless all team members are familiar with the scope of the original material and can pick and justify the excerpts they think should be presented. This was difficult to do until enough of the interviews were translated into English.

Pros: One upside of creating these extensive Japanese-only “To Be Transcribed” cuts was that they were intuitive for native Japanese speakers to work with. Furthermore, they eventually allowed for project members who did not understand Japanese to contribute to deliberative decisions in the thematic, meaningful creation of the excerpts to be featured on the site.

Cons: It took a significant amount of time for such a volume of material to be transcribed, translated, and time-stamped into workable English versions. This yielded a much higher amount of transcription work than would have been necessary if decisions about what should be featured came first. With only ten weeks in our summer research period, time management was essential.

Getting from the raw footage to Japanese-only “To Be Transcribed” cuts. File conversion work is in blue. Key project decisions are in yellow. The new product is in green.


Enlisting the Help of Volunteers

Having arrived at Japanese-only “To Be Transcribed” videos, the next steps were transcription, translation, and the synchronization of our video content to Japanese and English transcripts. We decided to ask for the help of native Japanese speakers in all three of these tasks, given the sheer volume of footage that needed to be transcribed and the Japanese linguistic abilities necessary to do so.

Grassroots collaborations rely heavily on interpersonal relationships, a unifying message or purpose, and the availability and goodwill of a corps of volunteers. If you are considering enrolling volunteers in your project, some areas that need to be carefully considered are:

  • Who are you looking for? What are you looking for them to do? Why is this important for the project/goal that you have in mind?
  • Why does the project matter?
  • What skills (technological, linguistic, etc.) would someone who wanted to get involved need? What technology do they need to successfully create the product you are asking of them? How long do you expect their work to take?
  • When is the hard deadline for them to return their product, whether complete or incomplete, to you?
  • Is the schedule you are working with reasonable for the demands being placed on volunteer labor?

Thinking through these questions and making the answers and expectations clear for yourself, other project members, and the volunteers you seek to enlist will link your mission with the logistical workflow necessary to achieve it.

In the specific case of NAHP, the volunteer enrollment process went as follows. As soon as we knew the kind of help we needed, we drafted a call for volunteers in Japanese that explained our mission and what we needed help with: transcribing and translating our Japanese footage. At the minimum, all a volunteer would need to do to help in our effort was watch a video and transcribe what they heard into a word processing document. On the volunteer sign-up form, we asked potential volunteers whether they could work only in Japanese or whether they would be comfortable translating Japanese into English. The sign-up form also included a consent form that stated they would not publicize the “To Be Transcribed” videos we shared with them beyond the transcription or translation work they were doing. We also asked them how much time they could devote to this project: one hour? Two hours? 4-6 hours? Or six or more hours? Anticipating that each video would take twice as long to transcribe as its original length, we delegated transcription and translation tasks accordingly. In retrospect, we actually severely underestimated the time it takes to transcribe spoken speech, even if one is a native speaker of the language. Transcription actually takes at least 3-4 times longer than the original length of speech! When calculating and delegating the amount of transcription help you might need on a project, please keep this in mind.

Within three days of circulating the call for volunteers, over twenty people signed up from all corners of Japan, North America, and Europe. The overwhelming response speaks to the importance of the message and purpose of the project. This was a corps of volunteers coming together to give voice to survivors. Additional volunteers also joined later in the summer, for a total of over 30 volunteer transcribers, translators, and synchronizers.

Enlisting volunteers. Blue squares explain the process. Green square is the result.

YouTube: A Global Project Workspace

Now that we had Japanese-only “To Be Transcribed” videos and a corps of volunteers, we were presented with a new dilemma: How could we get these videos from an external hard drive in Hamilton, NY, to Japanese-speaking volunteers across the world in a private and secure, but efficient, way? YouTube proved to be an effective platform for exactly this kind of multilingual, globally-dispersed collaboration.

An Intuitive, Efficient, and Relatively Safe Video Delivery System

Most of us are familiar with YouTube as content consumers. YouTube is also a digital studio where creators can collaborate. After my experience coordinating NAHP work through YouTube, I consider YouTube a “global video project delivery system.”

We created a score of “unlisted” videos on YouTube as a globally-connected, intuitively-accessible, private digital workspace. “Unlisted” YouTube videos can only be accessed through the YouTube Creator Studio or by using the specific link to the video. They are unsearchable through Google and other means. We would upload the “To Be Transcribed” videos as unlisted videos on a private YouTube channel and share the link for each video with the transcribers. Transcribers could then pull up the video on their computers, phones, ipads, or tablets, and watch and listen in whatever way was most accessible to them as they typed or even voice-dictated the Japanese into text documents.

Delivering “To Be Transcribed” videos to volunteer transcribers through “Unlisted” YouTube links. Blue squares explain the process. Green square is the result.

Subtitling: Synchronizing Transcripts with Videos

YouTube has developed a robust and intuitive interface for facilitating crowdsourced closed captioning and subtitling, which served our needs well. YouTube videos can be closed-captioned and each video can have over 200 different subtitled language tracks. Though auto-generated closed-captions are possible, their accuracy can be abysmal at times, especially when working with homonyms, nonstandard dialects (in this case, the local Nagasaki dialect), and other linguistic issues. In short, YouTube auto-generated Japanese subtitles pale in comparison to the human ear, human brain, and decades of life in a cultural and linguistic milieu. It’s not only that human transcribers are better but also that—especially in a project like this one—they matter.

Using YouTube’s robust “Closed Captioning” capabilities, we asked a different group of Japanese-speaking volunteers throughout the world to synchronize chunks of the transcript to the video recordings, saving the Japanese language “closed captions” track directly with the “unlisted” videos on YouTube. YouTube also allows you to export closed captions with time stamps on your videos as a text document. This meant we could export time-stamped Japanese transcripts that were ready for English translation.

Translation volunteers were then provided these transcripts and access to the unlisted” videos so that they could append natural-sounding English translations without changing the time stamps. All translations were checked over by native English speakers.

From Japanese closed-caption “synchronization” to time-stamped English subtitles. Blue squares explain the process. Green square is the result.

After transcription, synchronization, translation, and upload of the time-stamped English-language transcripts onto an English language subtitled channel, we now had fully time-stamped, English-subtitled “To Be Transcribed” videos. We could finally select the excerpts from each interview that we wished to feature. But then we faced a new challenge. If, for instance, we wanted the clip of something that was said from 7:01 to 7:33 in a “To Be Transcribed” video, that would become 0:00 to 0:32 in a new clip. How could we systematically transpose the time stamps on the transcript of certain clips without having to redo the entire process of lining up the transcriptions? Thankfully, we enlisted help from an Excel-savvy economics major, who devised a “Transcript Helper” program in Excel that smoothly transposed timestamps and their associated subtitles from the original timing to the new timing.

The Final Stretch: NAHP Website Hosting, Creation, and Design

Everyone on the NAHP team was new to website design, so we turned to Colgate Information Technology Services, Communications, and the Internet for help and guidance. Below is a simple chart that uses land and shop/store metaphors to explain website and web development terminology. I hope it can be helpful for you in your own web design endeavors.

Website hosting explained through a land and store metaphor.

Future Directions

In 2022, we plan to hold a hybrid conference on “Teaching the Bomb'' at Colgate University. We seek to engage American college, university, and high school educators who teach about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. We welcome a wide array of approaches from the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, and all other disciplines to teaching the bomb. This will enable us to develop a more robust repository of educational resources that will then be hosted on and accessible through the NAHP site alongside the existing human history focus of NAHP.

For a curated list of survivor literature and academic publications about survivors’ experiences, please consult the “Additional Resources” section on the Nagasaki Atomic History and the Present website. You can read more about NAHP through the project statement and synopsis, found in the “About Us” section of the website.

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