Hasan Rahaya: Memories of Hiroshima Stay With Eyewitness


It has been almost 70 years, but for Hasan Rahaya, not a single day passes in which he doesn’t remember the landing of a bomb on Hiroshima.

“Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, I hear myself saying Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Hiroshima, over and over,” the 90-year-old Indonesian said. “But not in a negative way. It’s not like I’m having nightmares.”

Hasan survived the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, killing 30 percent of the city’s population. He was a student at the Hiroshima University of Literature and Science, today known as Hiroshima University, sponsored by the Japanese government at the time.

Hasan only narrowly escaped death on that fateful day, yet in the face of unimaginable sorrow and pain, he didn’t despair, but did everything he could to help others.

When Hasan was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Hiroshima University on March 16 this year in a ceremony held at Darma Persada University in Jakarta, Hiroshima University Vice President Shin-ichi Uye applauded Hasan for his actions.

“Hasan Rahaya survived the atomic bomb,” he said. “Not just that, he was extraordinary, he helped evacuate the victims and cared for them. It was a noble gesture of humanity.”

Hasan was born in December 1922 and grew up in Jasinga, a small town 50 kilometers west of Bogor, West Java. He had a normal childhood, he said, and excelled at learning foreign languages in school such as Dutch and Arabic, among others. But peace was not about to last. World War II reached the shores of Indonesia, and in early 1942, Japanese military forces landed in Banten, on the western coast of Java. Not long after that, Japanese troops were passing through Bogor and Jasinga.

Some of them stayed in Jasinga for a week or two for security purposes. Local people, Hasan recalled, were frightened, because they didn’t know what to expect from the Japanese soldiers.

“But every morning, they would come to our house and asked my mother to serve them some breakfast, fruits,” he said. It was the first time that Hasan heard and learned Japanese words.

After the soldiers had moved on, Hasan received news from relatives in Jakarta that the Japanese military forces had opened a Japanese language school for Jakarta residents. He then asked for permission from his parents to move to the capital, where he stayed at his older sister’s house and enrolled in the school.

“I could already speak a little Japanese, based on what I had learned from the soldiers, so the teachers welcomed me there,” Hasan said.

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Because of his ability to learn quickly, he was promoted to become a Japanese language teacher at a renowned elementary school in Jakarta after only nine months.

“I taught from first to sixth grade, and I really liked to teach,” he said. But he didn’t stay long in this job either, as he was soon offered a chance to work at the Japanese military office in Jakarta.

“My boss, who was a very nice man, then suggested that I go to Japan to study,” Hasan recalled. “At that time, everybody wanted to go to Japan, because we were all astonished at how a small country like that would dare to fight against the United States and thought that the force of Japan’s military power must be very strong.”

During the war, more than 200 Southeast Asian students were invited by the Japanese government to study in Japan as part of the “Nanpo Tokubetsu Ryugakusei” scholarship program, which was launched to develop human resources within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Hasan was among the second batch of Indonesian students and departed for Tokyo in 1944. He stayed in the Japanese capital for 10 months before being sent to Hiroshima.

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, he and another student were attending a physics class. At 8:15 a.m., the atomic bomb detonated, about 1.5 kilometers from the annex building of the university where Hasan was studying.

“We heard a very huge sound when the bomb exploded,” Hasan said. “I was already used to bombings from when I stayed in Tokyo, where it happened almost every day and night. But the sound was very different. It was only one sharp sound. I was thrown to the ceiling, and my head was bleeding, though not severely.”

Unable to fully understand what had just happened, Hasan and his friend crawled out of the collapsed building through a broken window. What he saw outside, he said, was beyond words.

“I was so frightened,” he said. “There weren’t any more buildings standing, everything had fallen apart.”

On the streets, he saw countless people severly injured — bleeding, their clothes torn apart, crying. “Me and my friend then decided to go back to our dormitory,” Hasan said. “It was so hard to find it, because all the houses had collapsed, and we couldn’t see the street anymore.”

When they finally reached the dormitory, which had also been reduced to rubble, they tried to help their friends and drag them out of the debris. “But we couldn’t help all of them, because we saw that there was a fire coming,” Hasan said.

Soon, the city was in flames, and the fire moved quickly because of the wind. The heat was unbearable. Hasan led a group of 16 people, including six Japanese middle-school girls and other foreign students, to the Motoyasu River, close to the dormitory, and told them to jump into the water.

“We were hiding under a nearby bridge, and when the fire approached us, we submerged, then came up again for air, over and over again,” Hasan said.

The firestorm raged in Hiroshima for a few hours. Only when the fire had stopped did the group dare to climb back on shore.

“There were no more houses left, everything had been destroyed by fire,” Hasan said, describing what awaited him after leaving the river. “There was nothing. The only thing we could see were some trees still standing. But they were all black. Imagine how many people were burned in that fire.”

The survivors didn’t know what to do or where to go next. “The schoolgirls couldn’t stop crying, wondering if their parents and families were still alive,” Hasan said. “But I couldn’t cry. Things had already happened, and there was nothing we could do about that.”

Except for try to survive. It was Hasan who led the group to the main building of the university, hoping to find shelter. They camped out on the campus for several days, scanning the surroundings for food and water, before they were eventually rescued.

Leaving Hiroshima behind, the foreign students returned to Tokyo, and were advised to go back to their home countries. Hasan, however, decided to stay. With the Japanese government unable to financially support him any longer, Hasan worked for the United States’ occupying force at the Zushi ammunition depot in Yokohama for three years, where people able to speak both English and Japanese were in high demand.

When Hasan had saved enough money, he quit his job and continued his studies at Keio University in Tokyo, where he studied political science and economics. Upon graduation in 1951, Hasan returned to Indonesia. His family, which only learned six months after the atomic bomb that Hasan had survived, was thrilled to see him again.

“They couldn’t believe that it was really me,” Hasan recalled. “They were all wondering if I was still myself.”

Since his return, he has dedicated his life to strengthening the ties of friendship between Indonesia and Japan, mainly by founding the Association of Indonesian Alumni from Japan (Persada), which was deeply involved in the establishment of Darma Persada University. He was also a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives for many years and served as a member of the Supreme Advisory Council to the president during the late 1970s and ’80s. But most of all, he aimed to promote peace and conveyed his extraordinary tale of survival in Hiroshima to as many people as possible.

While he is aware that the Japanese often didn’t treat his fellow countrymen well during the war, he said he never harbored any negative feelings toward Japan. “Without going to Japan, I would never have been able to lead the life that I have,” he said.

Hasan is the last Indonesian survivor of the atomic bomb, as the other two have already passed away. “I am so thankful that I was able to survive,” he said. “And despite everything that has happened, I am truly happy and enjoy life.”

He recently moved back to Bogor with Eny, his wife, to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Hasan still visits Darma Persada University once a week, where he continues to serve as an advisor.

He has returned to Hiroshima several times, the last time in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb. He plans to travel there again later this year, if his health allows it.

“Do you know the 1960s song by Frank Sinatra, ‘I left my heart in San Francisco?’ ” he asked. “I feel the same way. Only I left my heart in Hiroshima.”