Hiroshima – For survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the haunting images of those fateful days remain vivid after 75 years.
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, some 350,000 people in Hiroshima were just beginning their day when a uranium bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” detonated 580 meters above the city, killing an estimated 70,000 people.
Three days later, at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, U.S. forces dropped a plutonium bomb, codenamed “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki, which exploded at 503 meters, killing another 40,000 people.
Radiation aftereffects would see the death tolls double by the end of the year.
Survivors typically describe what they were doing those summer mornings before seeing a flash of light so bright it burned permanent shadows into walls and streets.
The deafening boom that followed often knocked survivors unconscious, after which they awoke to a vision of hell complete with “black rain,” raging fires, rivers filled with corpses and an endless stream of shambling ghost-like figures begging for water.
The blast force tore buildings asunder, knocked streetcars from their tracks and threw bodies like rag dolls. Glass exploded from windows, searing heat scorched skin and houses collapsed, trapping thousands as flames rushed on.
Radiation emitted by the bombs altered the DNA of not only those within the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but all who would enter their ruins over the weeks to come. Among the total 214,000 estimated to have perished as a result of the bombings by the end of 1945, many were rescue workers who, in attempting to save the lives of others, unwittingly sacrificed their own.
The Nagasaki bomb exploded over the Urakami Valley, 3 kilometers northwest of the intended target point, devastating an industrial sector, but sparing much of the commercial district.
Hiroshima, however, fared worse. Although considerably weaker than Fat Man’s 21-kiloton payload at 16 kilotons, Little Boy detonated directly above the city center, with local geography — a flat plain surrounded by mountains on three sides — magnifying the blast force.
When the dust cleared, about 12 square kilometers of Hiroshima lay in ruins, accounting for roughly 70 percent of all buildings in the city.
Hiroshima as its residents knew it had all but vanished, and in its place stood a wasteland of ash and rubble, populated by corpses, the injured and the bereaved.
Survivors struggled with mysterious illnesses and malaise brought on by their exposure to radiation. Many tired easily and had difficulty working for long hours. Others appeared to be fine at first, only to suddenly fall sick and later die.
“The discrimination started soon after,” says Keiko Ogura, 83, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima at age 8. “If we identified ourselves as survivors, it became difficult to get married or find a job, so we stopped talking about it and tried to forget.”
Light in the ruins
As the survivors of the bombings battled a wide range of illnesses caused by their exposure to radiation, the people of Hiroshima began immediately to rebuild.
Shanties soon cropped up amid the rubble, a lively black market bloomed beside Hiroshima Station and everyone did what they could to scrape by.
The city became the second in the nation after Sapporo to draw up an urban plan, with a citizen’s council created to oversee reconstruction. The one thing council members all agreed on was that Hiroshima must become a “city of peace” — a sentiment shared by many survivors, or hibakusha as they’re called in Japanese.
On the first anniversary of the bombing, people in Hiroshima set lanterns afloat on the Motoyasu River beside the A-bomb Dome in memory of those who died in the city’s rivers as they fled the flames. The following year, the city’s first elected mayor, Shinzo Hamai, stood in what is now Peace Memorial Park and read a “declaration of peace from Hiroshima.” Both remain traditions of the city’s annual Aug. 6 ceremony to this day.
In 1950, money thrown into empty sake barrels around town funded the creation of the Hiroshima Carp, the city’s famed baseball team, while black market vendors started serving a new culinary craze called okonomiyaki, a savory layered crepe that has become the city’s signature dish.
“When the Hiroshima Carp was born, we survivors thought it was at last possible to overcome our fear and hold out some hope for the future,” Ogura says. “We thought, ‘Maybe we can survive. Maybe we can have a nice day, like before.’”
The Allied Occupation of Japan ended in 1952 and, slowly, people’s lives began returning to normal. On Aug. 6 that same year, children orphaned by the Hiroshima bomb unveiled the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, the city’s first official A-bomb memorial. Standing in the heart of the Peace Memorial Park, it bears the words, “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”
Survivors speak out
“Every day, we would see new buildings being built and it seemed like a peaceful city,” Ogura recalls.
Still, the survivors simply couldn’t forget their experiences. And fresh reminders of what they had endured drove many to despair.
The Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States conducted its first live test of a thermonuclear device in 1952 in the South Pacific and a Japanese fishing boat (the Fukuryu Maru No. 5) was contaminated by nuclear fallout from a test at Bikini Atoll in 1954.
“Suddenly we found that the world was competing to create more powerful nuclear weapons,” Ogura says. “That was the second turning point of Hiroshima. Until that time, we had comforted ourselves by believing that the world had learned from our suffering. However, we saw that it was all in vain. So, in spite of our fear of radiation aftereffects and discrimination, we decided to speak out.”
Hiroshima hosted the International Symposium on the Abolition of A and H Bombs in 1955, and, for the first time, members of the anti-nuclear movement joined forces with the survivors by inviting them to share their stories at the conference.
That same year, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened to the public, the city unveiled the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound as a final resting place for the cremated ashes of some 70,000 unidentified A-bomb victims and a 12-year-old girl folded more than 1,000 paper cranes on her hospital bed as she battled leukemia caused by exposure to radiation a decade earlier.
The death of that young girl — the celebrated Sadako Sasaki — and the efforts of her friends to build a monument in her honor, kicked off a children’s peace movement and forever linked the origami crane with the abolition of war.
Passing the torch
Now, 75 years after those fateful days in August, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki face another decisive moment in history — the last days of the survivors.
With the average age of survivors now eclipsing 85, municipal and nongovernment organizations have begun scrambling to document their experiences, with the cities themselves leading the charge.
In addition to filming and recording testimonies from survivors, Hiroshima maintains an A-bomb Legacy Successor program at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that aims to keep their stories alive.
“I had learned generally about the bombing at school here in Hiroshima,” says Mariko Higashino, 67, a graduate of the Legacy Successor program, “but I knew nothing specific.”
All that changed when her mother, Chisako Takeoka, asked her to carry on her legacy. The year was 2012, and the museum had just started the program.
“I had never told my story to my family, or even to my daughter,” says Takeoka, 93. “However, more and more hibakusha were dying. I was afraid I wouldn’t have much time either, so I casually asked Mariko if she would become a successor to my testimony. To my surprise, she said, ‘Yes.’”
Higashino entered the program in its first year as one of 20 members of the Takeoka Group.
“Before participating in the program, I knew that my mother was 17 when the bomb exploded,” Higashino says. “I also knew that my grandmother lost her eye in the blast and that my older brother died 18 days after birth.”
What Higashino didn’t know was how her mother had searched through the ruins of Hiroshima for Higashino’s grandmother only to find her bandaged in a makeshift field hospital, how her mother had listened behind a door as her grandmother endured eye-removal surgery without anesthesia and how her infant brother, born two years after the bombing, died with purple spots on his skin — a victim of radiation poisoning.
Takeoka volunteered with the program for 12 years, and has since seen around 10 storytellers emerge as official keepers or her testimony. She retired from the program this year due to age-related health concerns.
For Higashino, the experience of inheriting her mother’s story has been transformative.
“When my mother first asked me, I thought only about succeeding her story,” she says. “But as I learned what she went through, I began to see how my mother’s story was part of something much bigger. It’s not just about her experience or even about Hiroshima, it’s about creating peace in this world.”
A brush with death
The average age of A-bomb Legacy Successors is 65 — about a generation younger than the hibakusha themselves. However, many efforts to preserve the hibakusha legacy aim to connect young people with A-bomb stories as well.
Motomachi High School’s A-bomb Drawing project pairs students with survivors to create original oil paintings depicting Hiroshima’s memories.
“This is more than just a picture,” says Sadae Kasaoka, 87, a participant in the program who survived the bombing at age 12. “It’s a reflection of my heart.”
The oil painting beside her, painted by Moeka Shimomukai, 18, depicts a girl standing in shock near a charred corpse leaning into a cistern labeled “water for fire.”
“I recall still having glass embedded in my body,” says Kasaoka, who lost both her parents in the bombing. “I went to get a drink of water and suddenly saw a body. I was so scared. I just stood by the corpse, staring. This scene has never faded from my mind.”
In the A-bomb Drawing program, students refine the accuracy of their sketches with direct feedback from the survivor, conducting additional research that takes them deep into historical photo archives, written accounts and the very places where the haunting scenes unfolded.
Starting last year, students of Motomachi High School in Hiroshima’s Motomachi neighborhood also began creating picture books to help even younger children understand what happened in Hiroshima in 1945. The first batch tells three stories based on Keiko Ogura’s testimony, including her account of the bombing and subsequent nightmares about giving water to A-bomb victims.
Survivors often recall that countless victims died begging for water due to the unimaginable heat of the A-bomb.
At that time, however, many in Japan believed that giving water to a grievously injured person could kill them, and so most of those desperate cries went unanswered.
Eight-year-old Ogura was too young to know the practice.
“I ran and got water from the well,” she recalls, “but when I let them drink, some of them died right in front of me.”
Images of A-bomb victims begging for water would haunt her dreams for decades.
“Finally, after years of silence, I told my story to a friend,” Ogura says. “She told me that it wasn’t my fault, and that it was just their time to go. Only then did the nightmares stop.”
The students produced the books in different styles with Ogura herself providing feedback throughout the creation process.
“With oil paintings, these kinds of scenes are usually very grotesque,” says Rio Yokoyama, 17, who worked with her classmate Maehama Honoka, 18, to produce the book. “We chose the much softer look of watercolor to avoid scaring young readers.”
Over the coming decades, the survivors of the atomic bombing will eventually leave us, but their memories will live on. Their message about the horrors of war and the need for peace continues to inspire artists, activists and policymakers around the world.
“Thanks to the efforts of hibakusha, NGOs and supporting countries, A-bomb testimonies are gradually being heard around the world,” says Yasco Suehiro, director of Mayors for Peace Secretariat, who attributes the spread of the hibakusha’s stories to the growing global sentiment against nuclear weapons. “By understanding the humanitarian consequences of atomic bombs, more and more people see the necessity of their abolition.”
Fortunately, the world took a step in that direction with the nuclear weapon prohibition treaty drafted in 2017. If ratified, it would represent the first legally binding agreement that seeks to eliminate nuclear weapons.
At the same time, however, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia just last year, while the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty focus on limiting rather than banning nuclear weapons.
More alarmingly, the world’s nuclear states have all begun creating new nuclear weapons, a situation that Suehiro finds deeply troubling.
“Internationally, we see unilateralism rising and confrontational approaches increasing tension between nations,” she says. “As a result, the situation surrounding nuclear weapons is very unstable.”
With 82 countries and territories signed on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including 40 nations that have already ratified the pact, it seems certain that it will come into force within the hibakushas’ lifetime.
However, as a nation under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Japan has so far refused to sign, generating criticism from the leaders of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As a result, Mayors for Peace submits a signature request to the government each year.
“What we’ve been saying to the government is 99.5 percent of Japanese municipalities have joined Mayors for Peace, so please feel assured that the people of Japan support you in signing the treaty,” Suehiro says.
For her part, Higashino believes Japan’s signature has the power to spark genuine change.
“If Japan signs and ratifies the treaty, I think many other countries will follow,” she says. “Japan is the only country to experience a nuclear attack and it’s very strange that our signature remains absent.”
It’s hard to say if the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will live long enough to see the abolition of nuclear weapons.
But at 75 years — and counting — the memories of the hibakusha still stretch across the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
Much like the silhouettes seared into the streets of August 1945, it’s a shadow that will never fade.