HIROSHIMA – It took Tamiko Shiraishi nearly seven decades before she could come to terms with her experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945.
Before she began speaking about her life as a hibakusha in 2013, she’d spent the better part of it despising the country that destroyed her hometown. She had long shunned studying English, seeing it as the enemy’s language, and had cringed at the sight of an airplane, a reminder of her traumatic memory.
But with the passage of time she was slowly able to heal.
“It’s not that my hatred of America is completely gone, but I hardly hold a grudge anymore,” Shiraishi, 77, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times at Ground Zero in Hiroshima.
“I feel like it’s time we forgave each other. I want to be a forgiving person,” she said.
On that fateful day of Aug. 6, 1945, Shiraishi, then 7, was at her school in the city of Ujina.
She caught a “bluish white light” out of the corner of her eye, and in the next moment a deafening blast sent fragments of broken glass flying like shrapnel across her classroom. Shiraishi was too stunned to realize what had just happened.
She was so shocked that it was only after she trod back home, barefoot, that she discovered blood dripping down her face from a head injury. The soles of her feet were pierced with glass.
After her mother treated her wounds, Shiraishi, an only child who had already lost her father in the war, spent the rest of the day at home.
Little did she imagine, the real horror — one that still haunts her to this day — was yet to come.
“That night, before I went to sleep, I heard this slithering sound coming from outside. I thought about going out to see, but I was so tired I just dozed off.”
The next morning, she awoke to the same noise. Drawing the curtains, what she saw has been seared in her memory for life.
“What I saw were people walking with their melted skin dangling from their bodies. They were all severely burned and their hair was curled upward. It turned out the sound was their skin scraping along the sandy road as they marched on,” Shiraishi said.
Terrified, she wanted to stay home but her mother insisted they go to look for Shiraishi’s grandmother, who was missing.
What she saw outside was hell.
Dead bodies littered the streets with traces of the inferno from the previous day still visible here and there.
Once they reached a nearby aid station packed with critically wounded victims, her mother shouted out for her grandmother. As Shiraishi followed, a dying survivor — gender no longer recognizable — grabbed her by the ankle and asked for water.
Shiraishi dashed to a nearby tap and filled her palm with water. But by the time she returned, there was barely any left. She shook her hands and a few drops landed on the victim’s lips.
“Thank you,” the person said, before taking his or her last breath.
“No, don’t give that person water!” cried a middle-aged woman, running frantically toward her and shoving her aside.
“Now look what you’ve done! This person died because of you,” the woman yelled at the young Shiraishi, who then panicked and began to sob.
In hindsight, Shiraishi said, the woman was probably worried that giving dying victims water would relieve them so much they would stop struggling for life.
“Her words haunted me long after. It was a very traumatic experience,” she said.
Later, her grandmother was found alive at a different aid center, but died shortly after.
More salt in the wound, Shiraishi, like other hibakusha, suffered prejudice and discrimination in the decades that followed.
When she was in grade school, she came down with a high fever, forcing her to miss school for a year. Upon her return, she was bullied by classmates, who said the illness was due to radiation exposure and treated her like a contagious germ.
Even after she married a man who was not a hibakusha, at age 21, Shiraishi long kept it to herself, fearful that he might start seeing her differently. Many female hibakusha weren’t able to get married or were forced to divorce because of their past. Shiraishi’s husband didn’t divorce her when, seven years into their marriage, she confided in him the truth of what happened to her.
And when her son was born prematurely, she agonized over the notion that it may have been her fault.
“Survivors have it tough. We’re stigmatized just for being hibakusha,” Shiraishi said.
Considering everything she went through, revealing herself as a hibakusha was not easy.
But nearly 70 years after the fatal blast, she was increasingly alarmed by the lack of public awareness of the bombing.
But feeling her days numbered, she came forward as a hibakusha to make sure the tragedy is never forgotten. The story she tells is based on notes she took over the years of her recollections of the bombing.
Shiraishi now volunteers as a tour guide for visitors of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and periodically stands in front of a podium to recount her experiences surviving the atomic bombing that had killed an estimated 140,000 people by the end of 1945.
The details of her story, however, are so excruciating that she can only tell it twice a day before feeling tired and depleted.
“The atomic bomb is horrible. … We must not let this happen ever again,” she said.
Though her life has been tough, Shiraishi said she has always found solace in the words of her late mother.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘Girls are better off smiling. You should never forget to smile,’ ” she recalled.
“An awful lot happened in my life, yes. But I am happy now.”