Suffering to Compassion

By Rinban Noriaki Ito

Her life was vibrant, bright, sassy, and devoted to helping others. What people didn’t see was the unspeakable horror of war that shaped her life.

Los Angeles Higashi Honganji temple member Florence Shioko Yamada passed away last December, a week before her 88th birthday. Four months earlier, her son and only child Ken passed away.

Florence was born and raised in Los Angeles until age 11, when she and her younger brother were sent to Japan for schooling in Hiroshima, where she lived with her maternal grandparents. World War II began and suddenly Japan and the United States were at war. At the war’s end, on August 6, 1945, Florence’s life changed forever.

On that day, Florence was at school when the United States military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Separated from her family and suffering from radiation poisoning, the 15-year-old girl found her way to an evacuation center for school children. Then she walked to another center, where her family was to meet. She searched for her grandparents and younger brother, but could not find them.

She eventually returned to her grandparent’s home, which was reduced to ruble. There, she discovered the bodies of her grandparents. The home was just 500 yards from the epicenter of the blast.

The next day, Florence returned with a wheelbarrow, shovel, paper and wood.  She dug from the ruble her grandparents’ badly decomposed remains and cremated them.  She never found her younger brother.

After the war ended, Florence returned to California, got married and gave birth. She earned a degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and began work as a hospital clinical dietician. St. Vincent Hospital eventually opened a Japanese Community Hospital Pavilion, where Florence became a key team member, working with kitchen staff to provide Japanese food with dietary restrictions to patients. Sometimes she cooked rice and other desired Japanese foods in her own kitchen and brought them to patients. She often contacted the temple informing them about temple members who were admitted, so ministers could visit.

For Florence, the horrors of what she experienced in Hiroshima wasn’t something she could easily talk about. In recent years, she had become active with the Los Angeles branch of the Committee for Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States. Its mission was to promote peace and ensure atomic bomb survivors receive good medical care.  In 1980, she was invited to appear before Senator Edward Kennedy and the Labor and Human Resources subcommittee of the U.S. Senate to tell her story.

At a time when we once again face the danger of nuclear arms, I think it is important to share stories of people like Florence Yamada. Buddhism teaches us of the impermanence of life.  It teaches that life is filled with challenges that cause suffering.  I imagine Florence must have hated having both countries she called home wage war with one another.  She experienced tremendous suffering.

Yet she helped many people during her career in care giving. I feel she awakened to the preciousness of life. She also did much to raise awareness about the horrors of war. In this volatile world in which we live today, let’s remember people like Florence who have suffered because of war and who turn their lives towards compassion.

Rev. Noriaki Ito is rinban (head minister) of the Los Angeles Higashi Honganji Betsuin temple.

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