Report from Japan: Witnesses to War, Working for Peace

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan

By Robert Israel

“On the sixth of August 1945, a young woman hugged a tree that grew on a hill above Hiroshima, a fragile protection for the unborn baby. Almost forty years later, that child, Keizo Matsui, a graphic designer, creates peace posters, his way of protecting a fragile world.” – Australian artist David Murray

“In the broadest context of human life and death, those of us who happened to escape the atomic holocaust must see Hiroshima as part of all Japan, and as part of all of the world.”
–Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima Notes


During her first visit to the United States a few years ago as a delegate to the United Nations Special Sessions on Disarmament, Sakue Shimohira addressed an assembly of high school students.

“Most of the students were so tall, I needed a platform to stand on so I could speak to them on their own level,” said Shimohira, who stands only a few inches above four feet.

“I told them my story, starting from August 9, 1945, when I was 10 years old. I crawled out of an air-raid shelter in Nagasaki and saw that my home town had been destroyed by the atomic bomb.”
Shimohira told the students the story she insists she doesn’t want to relate, a story of suffering that has never ceased, or nightmare images that won’t go away.

“I walked among the rubble of what had once been Nagasaki. I saw people with eyeballs pushed out of their skulls, viscera hanging out, hair gone. A mother walked past me, her flesh burned black, holding in her arms a charred baby struggling for life.

“I told the students about the houses and how they were all blown to bits. In the river, the water was gone and there were many dead bodies. I found my eldest sister, dead under the rubble. My mother was missing. I found her later that day. I recognized her body by her gold tooth. I touched her body and it disintegrated into ashes.”
The students look at her, bewildered. Most had never heard of Nagasaki.

“Because I was exposed to radioactivity at the time of the bombing, I’ve had to have many operations,” Shimohira continued. “My uterus, ovaries, appendix and gall bladder have been removed. At one time I wanted to be a doctor, like my brother, who was studying medicine…before he was killed in the atomic blast. I told the student I couldn’t go to school because I always had to struggle to survive.

“For many years I cared for my younger sister. She committed suicide after 10 years of suffering from radiation sickness.”

A student raised his hand and asked, “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? So why can’t you leave the war behind you?”

“I can’t leave the war behind me because of what happened when the atomic bomb fell,” Shimohira said. “Exposure to radioactivity 43 years ago still causes people to suffer today.

“I live on the boundary of death. The reasons I talk about what happened to me today is to warn others and to engage them in the need to work for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

Shimohira is one of the 370,000 hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), living in Japan today. Their average age is 60. Those well enough to tell their stories are doing so now more than ever before. In 1979, 700 hibakusha published accounts of their lives; in 1985, that figure rose to 2,800.

The hibakusha have issued demands that their own government pass the Hibakusha Relief Law, which calls for increased medical and social aid currently being administered. They have also lobbied for educational reforms that call for peace curriculums in Japanese public schools. Foremost among their demands is a call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

So far, many of these demands have gone unheeded.

A Mission to Remember

That the hibakusha survived the atomic bombings at all is miraculous.

In 1945, atomic weapons were not as sophisticated or as powerful as today’s weapons of mass destruction. But the bombs killed 78,000 people instantly in Hiroshima. Another 70,000 people died in Nagasaki three days later.
At the time of the bombings, there was no knowledge of possible disease that could be caused by exposure to radiation. The major hospitals in both cities were destroyed. Food, scarce even before the bombings, was contaminated, as was the drinking water. The hibakusha treated their burns with whatever they could find: herbs, poultices of red clay, or machine oil.

“In a way, it was beneficial to the hibakusha that no one knew about radioactive fallout,” said Yoshitaka Kawamoto, a hibakusha who is director of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. “The rescue workers came into the city from the suburbs. If they had known they were exposing themselves to radioactivity, they would have stayed away. Many more people would have died.”

After the war, hibakusha were prohibited from publicly testifying or publishing accounts of their experiences due to a press ban imposed by the occupying U.S. forces. The publishing of medical papers on atomic bomb-related diseases was similarly suppressed. When Japan gained its independence almost 10 years after the bombings, many hibakusha wanted to forget the pain of the injuries, the scenes of destruction.

One of those who wanted to forget was Takeshi Itoh. He was 15 years old at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, mobilized to work in a weapons factory.

“I saw the flash, which lasted not for one instant, but for a very long time,” said Itoh, now a 59-year-old economics professor at Yamanashi University of Kofu. “I instinctively tried to flee, but a friend call out and asked where I was going. By calling to me, he saved me. When I turned around to reply to him, there was a blast. When I came to, I was lying under the machine.”

Several of Itoh’s family members were killed by the blast; 50 of his classmates lay dead besides him on the assembly line.

“I moved to Tokyo after the bombing, to my uncle’s home, where I completed by studies,” Itoh said. “I put the past behind me. And then, on March 1, 1954, the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon Number 5 (Fukuro Maru 5) was exposed to radioactive fallout when the United States exploded a hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll. The fallout from the bomb killed one of the crew members, injured the other crew members and contaminated all the fish aboard. Hibakusha all over Japan were motivated towards activism.

“I’m responsible for organizing the Tokyo-area hibakusha (for the Japan Confederation of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferers). We have as our goal the passing of domestic policies, namely the passage of the Hibakusha Relief Law, and we have a universal goal, the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

The hibakusha movement born in the wake of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 incident is known as Hidankyo. Along with other peace group, they lobbied for aid to the atomic-bomb sufferers, bringing about the first hibakusha assistance law, passed in 1957. Ten years later, another law, the Hibakusha Welfare Law, was passed.

Survivors who fall under the guidelines defined by these laws receive free medical care and a stipend of 28,000 yen ($253.00) a month, if they suffer from an illness directly related to the atomic bombings.

“That figure is hardly sufficient since most atomic-bomb sufferers cannot work,” Itoh said. “And hibakusha have been unable to work, for the most part, these past 43 years. There has been no compensations, no pension scheme, to accommodate them. Due to radiation exposure, many hibakusha are susceptible to cancer and other diseases. We are asking the Diet to double its allocation to hibakusha from 100 billion yen a year to 200 billion yen a year.”

Opposition to the passage of the Hibakusha Relief law is widespread.

“Hibakusha seem to forget other Japanese were bombed during World War II,” says Shimpei Ozaki, a director of the Health Service Bureau’s Planning Division in Tokyo, a government agency in charge of administering aid to hibakusha. “Others were bombed by conventional weapons. These people sustained illness and lost property, too…Why should hibakusha be given more aid when these war sufferers get nothing?”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has voted against increased aid to atomic-bomb victims. The two major peace groups, Gensuikin and Gensuikyo, composed of members of the Socialist and Communist parties, have been split for years over the issue of Soviet involvement in the nuclear arms race, thereby further diffusing the demands of the hibakusha/

“The general public and the representatives of the Diet (parliament) fail to understand the significance of the hibakusha to all humanity,” says political commentator Hiroshi Iwadare. “Atomic warfare is not just a local incident that happened in Japan so many years ago. Atomic warfare is a problem that affects the entire human race. If only the Japanese could see this! Then the Hibakusha Relief Law would be passed.”

Japan’s constitution states adherence to three non-nuclear principles: no manufacture, no possession and no introduction of nuclear weapons. The Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty further states the U.S. must consult with the Japanese before bringing any nuclear weapons into the country. It is U.S. policy, however, neither to confirm nor deny the presence or movement of its nuclear weapons in other countries.

Nuclear powered submarines carrying cruise missiles or other nuclear weapons regularly make port calls at Yokoshura, a U.S. navy base outside Tokyo. The Yokoshura base is a short distance from the museum housing the Lucky Dragon Number 5, the once-contaminated ship that motivated Itoh into peace activism.

As for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, Japan recently signed an agreement to participate in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. Last year, Japan’s military spending exceeded the ceiling of 1 percent of the GNP the country had held on to for years. Several Japanese companies have been actively engaged in defense contracts.

Two companies that make automobiles as well as defense-related products are Masda and Mitsubishi, with modern plants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The exact nature of their defense work is top secret.

At the Mitsubishi plant in Nagasaki, torpedoes, such as the ones used in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, are manufactured. Local sources in Nagasaki report that in 1978, weapons production at the plant totaled 8.7 billion yen, or 4.6 percent of total production; in 1986, that figure rose to 49.5 billion yen, or 15.3 per cent of production.

In recent years, hibakusha have concentrated efforts on educating young people about World War II. Public school textbooks in Japan are screened by the Ministry of Education. Topics such as Japan’s barbaric attacks on China, the enslavement of Korean woman as “comfort women,” or prostitutes for the Imperial Army, or the attack on Pearl Harbor are not fully explored. Although thousands of Japanese public school students participate in the annual memorial service on August 4 in Hiroshima in memory of the children killed in the blast, a peace curriculum has yet to be adopted on a national level. Many hibakusha have since embarked on a peace curriculum of their own.

Akihiro Takahashi was a high school student at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima. As former director of the Peace Memorial Museum, he estimates he has spoken to 250,000 school children a year. He uses watercolor drawings an artist friend drew for him to illustrate his narrative/

“Children listen to my story, and they are usually very attentive,” Takahashi said. “But we live in an age when children respond to visual images, so my artist friend has provided these pictures for me.

“I was standing here,” he said, pointing to a drawing of a courtyard where 100 boys are lined up under a clear sky, “when the plane, the Enola Gay, appeared in the sky.”

The next drawing is a dark wash of burnt sienna, India ink. Charcoal, and splashes of blood red. The artist is depicting the maelstrom of earth and splinters of wood-frame buildings that merged with shattered glass and the bodies that were sucked into its vortex. The small, agonized face at the drawing’s center is Takahashi’s.

“I was thrown by the blast, and when I came to, I was wounded. The skin had been burned off my hands, arms and face. I made my way to the river. I passed many hibakusha on the way. There were walking corpses. They looked like a queue of ghosts.”

Takahashi suffers from chronic liver disease. During the blast he lost his hair and suffered severe radiation burns. His hair has grown back, but the keloid scars on his arms and hands have never healed.

“When I explain my story to children,” Takahashi said, “I give them comparative figures so they understand the three points of my story. The atomic blast caused thermal rays, radioactivity and blast winds.

“I tell them one kilo of uranium caused the blast. That’s roughly the size of 13 or 14 eggs. Even primary school students understand that.

“To explain thermal rays, I tell them at the hypocenter of the blast…the temperature reached 5,000 degrees centigrade. I tell children iron melts at 1,530 degrees and glass melts at 700 degrees centigrade.

“Then I tell them about radioactivity. The easiest way to explain that is the describe X-rays, which is about 0.1 rad of radiation. The maximum safe dose that a human body can receive in a year is 0.5 rad. At the time of the bombing of Hiroshima, initial radiation one kilometer from the hypocenter was measured at 255 rad for gamma ray radiation and 191 rads of neutron radiation.”

Speaking for those who cannot

Then there are the hibakusha who cannot testify for themselves. Others speak for them.

Yuriko Hatanaka is a 42-year-old microcephalic woman who was exposed to radiation in utero. She is one of 22 known hibakusha still living who were born with the abnormally small heads associated with microencephally. She lives with her father, Kuniso Hatanaka, in Iwakuni, a city 45 minutes’ drive from Hiroshima.

Yuriko has the mentality of a 2-year-old. She does not speak, except in short sentences to Kuniso. She sits by the window, looking at pictures in magazines. Kuniso calls the magazines “her companions and her babysitter. She goes through piles of them, and grows impatient because she doesn’t understand they only come once a week.”

For many years there was no acknowledgement that microcephaly was an atomic-bomb-related condition; consequently, there was no government funding to aid these victims. In the mid-1960s, Minoru Ohmata, an editor at Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, the Chugoku Shimbun, researched the findings of Japanese and U.S. doctors and assisted in organizing the Mushroom Society, which has lobbied successfully for government assistance for microcephalic children and their families.

“My wife Yoshie was 25 years old at the time of the bombing,” Kuniso said. “She was two months pregnant. When Yuriko was born, I could have put her on the palms of my hands, she was that small. She did not cry, laugh, walk or speak a word for many years. She couldn’t be toilet trained, couldn’t go to school. She cannot take care of herself…She just looks at pictures in magazines.”

He sat in his barber chair looking out the street scene in Iwakuni City. Life has changed in all these years, the city has been, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been rebuilt from the ashes and rubble and is thriving again. But time has stood still for him and his daughter.

“How can a baby in the womb be involved in war?” he asked. “When will the world realize that atomic bombs not only destroy trees and plants and wildlife and people, but also destroy the life of future generations, too?”

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at Versions of this story appeared in the Montreal Gazette, Providence Journal, Boston Herald, New London Day, and Choguku Shimbun (Hiroshima).


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