There is a way to protect ourselves from nuclear weapons.
And that is to listen. Really listen.
Listen to the voices of the people who experienced their aftermath.
We will never muster the political will necessary to rid the world of nuclear weapons unless we understand what these ultimate instruments of violence really are.
We have banned landmines, cluster bombs and chemical weapons. Yet terrifying arsenals of nuclear weapons continue to exist, with nearly 2,000 on hair-trigger alert, the weapon of choice of the world’s most powerful nations.
A recently published book, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: That We Never Forget,” brings together the voices and stories of more than 50 men and women who lived through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. So many personal stories — different perspectives on the same terrible event — create a real, complex and human picture.
And these people, known as hibakusha, are the ones who survived. The fate of those closer to the hypocenters was much worse.
We must not flinch from the reality of human suffering. If we do so, we may slip closer to repeating it, believing that these bombs are “just another weapon.”
The very real threat of the use of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia is completely unacceptable to anyone who understands their reality, especially when we know that today’s nuclear weapons are hugely more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So what is the real human impact described on these pages?
First are the intolerable levels of pain and suffering. The extreme heat obliterated people, melted eyeballs and caused skin to peel off, leaving suppurating burns that took months or years to heal. Masaki Morimoto, who experienced the bombing of Nagasaki when he was 12, recalled: “Maggots crawling around my wounds and bees coming to drink my pus — I was a living corpse. I was completely miserable.”
Extreme levels of radiation led to new depths of suffering. Senji Kawai, 15 when the bomb destroyed Hiroshima, stated: “I would run my fingers through my hair, and it would come out in clumps. … My gums turned purple and started to rot. They bled easily, and pus would ooze out. When I brushed my teeth, pieces of jelly-like flesh would get caught in my toothbrush.”
Almost all medical facilities had also been destroyed. People resorted to herbal remedies, simple antiseptic or even quack remedies such as ground human bone.
The people whose accounts are collected in this book all experienced the bombings as children or teenagers. Not only did they suffer physically, but they also missed the opportunity for education and often struggled in low-level jobs to make ends meet. They also suffered from persistent discrimination.
Senji Kawai concluded: “I still hate the war for making me like this. … I can’t ignore my feelings because that bomb ruined my life. I have suffered continually from it all my life.”
These depictions also include the mundane, a woman whose life was saved because she carried on peeling a potato and didn’t rush outside to look at the planes, and another who returned home to sew on a button.
Fear that never ends
Masaichi Egawa, Korean name Lee Jong-gun, was 17 when he experienced the Hiroshima bombing. He described how the human mind reacts in a tragedy of this unfathomable proportion: “The whole world was in darkness. … As my sight gradually returned, I doubted my eyes. Whole buildings had completely disappeared. The scene was unbelievable. My next action was to look for my lunch box. When something beyond comprehension happens, human beings turn their attention to something ordinary.”
He, like many, described terrible regrets, over failing to rescue someone trapped under a collapsed building as fire was spreading. “I just kept going, pretending I didn’t hear her. Every time I recall this, I get angry at myself. … This is an emotional conflict that will never be gone from my mind.”
One woman related how sunsets still trigger memories of the red skies over Hiroshima as the city burned fiercely for three days and nights.
Common to all hibakusha is fear and anxiety throughout their lives regarding the impact of radiation. Reviewing “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: That We Never Forget,” Masao Tomonaga, director emeritus of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital, commented: “The anxiety they still feel regarding potential aftereffects emerging in their own bodies or genetic effects in their offspring is quite beyond imagination. … An instantaneous exposure in August 1945 has kept survivors imprisoned by aftereffects for 70 years.”
Due to the stigma of being a hibakusha, many people hid the truth, not even telling their spouse that they had experienced the bombing. For women especially, this led to unbearable anxiety as the birth of a child neared, for fear of radiation-related disabilities.
An end to nuclear bombs
Every account concludes with the absolute determination to ensure that such hell is never experienced again. Shigeru Nonoyama puts it most succinctly: “Human beings do not need atomic bombs.”
The voices of the survivors have grown increasingly important in the quest to ban nuclear weapons, even as they age and become fewer in number. During the negotiations toward the adoption by the U.N. of the landmark treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons in July this year, Setsuko Thurlow, now 85, and other hibakusha were key voices pushing the debate forward.
Overwhelmed with emotion, she welcomed the formal adoption of the treaty. She asked delegates to pause to honor those who perished in 1945 or died later from radiation-related illnesses. “Each person who died had a name. Each person was loved by someone,” she told the crowded conference room. “I’ve been waiting for this day for seven decades, and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived. This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”
The treaty will be open for signing by governments from Sept. 20 during the U.N. General Assembly. Its preamble specifically references the suffering of the hibakusha. Now, more than ever, we must listen to their heartfelt plea for a world free from nuclear weapons.
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki: That We Never Forget” is published by Daisanbunmeisha. It is available on amazon.co.jp, priced at ¥1,620 for the paperback and ¥464 for the Kindle version. The accounts it contains were gathered by members of the Soka Gakkai peace committees and compiled for this English language volume by the organization’s youth division. Soka Gakkai has been promoting the abolition of nuclear weapons for 60 years, since the Declaration Calling for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons made by its second president Josei Toda on Sept. 8, 1957.