71 years ago today, the second atomic bomb fell on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Some 190,000 survivors of the nuclear attacks of World War II – the ‘hibakusha’ – still carry with them memories of death and destruction, radiation-induced diseases and social stigma that the bombs left in their wake. Three of them chose to recount their story: Masao Tomonaga, Sadao Yamamoto and Yoshiro Yamawaki were children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the US nuclear attacks. They now dig into the darkest reminiscences of their past in the hope that today’s world becomes free of the nuclear threat.
Treating survivors: the effects of atomic bomb radiations on human health
Dr Masao Tomonaga survived the detonation of the second atomic bomb in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. He graduated from Nagasaki University Medical School, specializing in internal medicine and haematology. He was previously the Director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital, and researched the after-effects of atomic bomb radiation on human health. He is now Chairman of the Nagasaki Global Citizen’s Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and directs a clinic attached to the Atomic Bomb Survivors Nursing Home.
This interview was conducted in February 2015 in Nagasaki by Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief of the Review, and Hitomi Homma, Communication Officer, ICRC Tokyo.
What was your personal experience of the atomic bombing and its immediate aftermath?
At the time of the bombing, I was two years and two months old. That morning, I was sleeping on the second floor of our Japanese- style wooden house in a Japanese-style bed, when suddenly the blast from the atomic bomb crushed our house. Fortunately I was not harmed, maybe because I was protected by the bed itself and the ceiling of the house did not hit me directly. After the blast, my mother, who had been preparing food, searched for me in the rubble of what had been my bedroom, and found I was still sleeping in the bed. She got me out of the ruins of our house, which burned to the ground ten to fifteen minutes after the initial blast. These are the dual physical effects of an atomic bomb: first the blast and then the fire.
Harsh medical consequences such as severe burns and fractures and other bodily injuries, for example due to broken glass, were typical effects of the atomic bomb blast. Some people were struck by so many shards of broken glass that some of the glass had to be left inside their bodies.
Warning: the following video might be disturbing to some viewers.
People near the blast itself suffered burns. People who were much further away from the hypocentre at the time of the blast suffered other injuries. A British Navy research team came to Nagasaki and observed the hibakusha. One officer wrote that each victim was killed three times: once by the blast, once by the heat, and once by the radiation. If an individual was closer to ground zero, her whole body became charcoal. Those terribly burned victims received a lethal dose of radioactivity as well as heat radiation, and also fractures.
As a doctor and a scientist, you specialized in the effects of radiation. What are some important findings on the health consequences of the atomic bomb?
Research shows that “short-distance survivors” – those who were located within 1.5 km of the hypocentre of the blast – have an average rate of leukaemia about fifty times higher than the average rate of leukaemia occurrences among distant survivors. This was the first finding of an atomic bomb radiation-induced disease, leukaemia.
The initial leukaemia peak disappeared after about fifteen years, but to my surprise a second leukaemia peak is now appearing, this time among the survivors who were children younger than ten years old at the time of the bombing. They are now approximately 85 years old. These survivors develop a special type of leukaemia, called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which occurs in the elderly.
It is very clear that the atomic bomb affects the human body for a lifetime, which means that the atomic bomb radiation affected survivors’ DNA. Double-strand DNA is the driver of the cells that make up the human body. Radiation from the atomic bomb injured these double-strand DNA and, while still hot from the radiation, the damaged DNA erroneously re-coupled, developing malignant genes, or abnormal gene fusions that cause various cancers, including this second type of leukaemia, MDS.
What other non-medical consequences were caused by the atomic bombing?
Nagasaki University doctors performed extensive psychological research in 1995, on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing. We found that about 7,000 survivors showed a very high incidence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after fifty years, a very large-scale psychological consequence. They suffer from flashbacks to the memory of the bombing, causing their mental health to deteriorate. This was the first data about psychological research. I showed this data (.pdf) at the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Oslo in 2013.
There are also other non-medical effects. First of all, there were financial or economic problems. Most of the survivors lost their houses and belongings and became destitute. In the first five to almost ten years, no economic help was provided by the Japanese government. Because of this, survivors united to protest to the government, asking for hospital and medical care as well as economic support. That was the beginning of the survivors’ movement, whose long history of protest still continues today. Survivors want the government to admit that their present condition, physically, mentally and socially, is due to the atomic bombing.
How were the survivors regarded by the rest of the Japanese people?
There was some social stigma. Some people could not get married in the very early recovery phase, in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many people who were not exposed to the atomic bomb were hesitant to allow their sons or daughters to get married to atomic bomb survivors. That was a kind of social discrimination. But gradually this segregation disappeared and many survivors could have a normal family life. It took almost ten years to reach an understanding of the effects of the atomic bomb. Some people were heavily affected – those who were located a short distance from the centre of the blast – but those who were some distance away seemed fine. Once this was widely recognized, there was no more of such discrimination in allowing marriage with survivors.
With more than seventy years of life experience in and around Nagasaki, what are the main lessons you draw from your experience treating and interacting with survivors?
I have unique viewpoint in two ways: as a survivor myself, and as a scientist, a medical doctor who can see the effects at the DNA level. By combining these two points of view, I see that we as human beings are facing very serious questions about nuclear technology.
Human civilization developed nuclear fission technology, which became, on the one hand, nuclear weapons, and on the other hand, nuclear power stations. This innovation brought a very meaningful energy source as well as a very destructive and inhumane weapon that has horrific effects on the human body. These are the two faces of nuclear technology. The outcome of my seventy years of observation is that the Japanese population, as well as the rest of the world’s citizens, need to seek a way towards world peace, without nuclear weapons.
Requiem Ishibumi: Singing for the lost students of Hiroshima
Mr Sadao Yamamoto was born in 1931 and was 14 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. He was approximately 2.5 km away from the hypocentre when the bomb exploded. He has since become an advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons through sharing his story. In 1970, he conducted the first performance of Ishibumi – Requiem for a Male Chorus, in honour of the first-year students who were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It has been sung every year since.
When the bomb was dropped, I was in the second year of junior high school. On 6 August 1945, at 8:15 a.m., the time of the bombing, I was in the east drill ground, and at that time we noticed there were three B-29 bombers flying over the sky from the southeast. There had been an air-raid warning, but it had been cancelled and there were only three planes, so we thought they must be doing reconnaissance. We looked up into the sky and noticed that suddenly, after flying over the city, those planes turned around and flew away, which was strange. At that moment, we heard a roaring explosion and all of us were blown back onto the grass by a shocking wave of heat. I was knocked unconscious.
The first-year students at my school were engaged in building demolition work a little more than half a kilometre from the hypocentre. The atomic bomb exploded at a height of 600 metres above the ground, and it is said that the temperature on the surface of the ground around the hypocentre reached 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius, an unimaginably high temperature, in an instant. It must have been a living hell for all of them.
I determined that it was necessary for me to share the tragedy of the first-year students of my school with the next generation in musical form. I asked a student from that year to write a song. The song is called Requiem Ishibumi. At the time, I was a conductor for a male chorus. On 2 October 1970, we presented Requiem Ishibumi on the spot where the Hiroshima city public hall once stood. The monument for the victims from my school stands on the riverbank, so we performed with the door open to the river and dedicated our song to the souls resting at the monument. Now this song is sung by the chorus group from the school every year. In 2015, the original members of the chorus will sing the song to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing.
140,000 people died because of the atomic bombing, including many students like myself. At that time, the population of the city of Hiroshima was about 350,000, including the military personnel stationed there and those who came from outside of the city; as much as 40% of the total population died in the bombing.
We should never repeat the tragedy. I hope that we will have a peaceful world without wars and without nuclear weapons, and through this kind of testimony I am making every effort towards that goal.
“These were the circumstances under which we forsook our father’s body”
Mr Yoshiro Yamawaki was just 11 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki. He and his twin brother were about 2.2 km from the hypocentre. He has since become an advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons and hopes that in sharing his experience he can prevent others from having to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons. In 2010 he was appointed as a Special Communicator for a World without Nuclear Weapons by the Japanese government.
Warning: the following testimony might be disturbing to some readers.
Until just before 11 o’clock, [my twin brother and I] were out on the veranda. Then we got hungry and went into the sitting room in the back of the house. While we were sitting there at the table, a whitish-blue light shot across the room. Then came a roar that seemed to shake the whole house.
The roof had been blown off, and we could see the sky. The pillars and walls were embedded with large numbers of sharp-edged fragments of broken glass. The other houses in the neighbourhood were in the same state of destruction. Across the harbour, the central part of the city was covered in clouds of dust.
My twin brother and I evacuated to the bomb shelter in our yard, where we waited for our father and our older brother to come home. About an hour had passed when our oldest brother arrived home from his factory. He told us that it was too dangerous to stay in that small bomb shelter and that we should move to a larger one nearby.
The bigger bomb shelter, which was like a tunnel carved into the cliff-side, was filled with mothers and their children. Children who were outside when the bomb detonated had been showered with heat rays and had suffered burns on any exposed skin. Other children were crying because they had been injured by shards of glass and other fragments that had been thrown by the blast. We spent that entire night waiting anxiously for our father to come back. By the next morning, however, he still hadn’t returned. At that point, the three of us went to find him.
There were many dead bodies amongst the debris littering the roads. The faces, arms and legs of the dead had become swollen and discoloured, causing them to look like black rubber dolls. As we stepped on the bodies with our shoes, the skin would come peeling off like that of an over-ripe peach, exposing the white fat underneath.
There were many dead bodies floating in the river as well. We were drawn to one that belonged to a young woman of about 18 or 19, from which a long white belt was dragging behind. When we got closer, we saw that this white belt was really her intestines, which were protruding from the side of her abdomen. Feeling nauseous, we turned our eyes away and hurried off in the direction of our father’s workplace.
Our father’s factory had been reduced to nothing but scorched metal framing. Through the demolished walls we saw three men working with shovels. We called out, “Our name is Yamawaki. Where is our father?” One of the men glanced over and said, “Your father is over there.” He pointed in the direction of the demolished office building.
The three of us dashed off in the direction he had pointed to. What we found there was our father’s corpse, swollen and scorched like all of the others. As we stood there stunned, the men with the shovels told us that if we wanted to take our father back home, it was better to cremate him there first. The crematories had also been destroyed in the bombing and could not be used.
Not knowing what else to do, we went around the scorched ruins of the factory and gathered up smouldering pieces of wood so we could perform the cremation. We put our father’s body on top of a bed of burned posts and then piled up the pieces of wood on top of him. When we lit it on fire, the flames rose high in the air. We put our hands together to say prayers for him. When we looked up again after finishing our prayers, we saw both of our father’s feet were sticking out from the fire. That was an absolutely unbearable thing to see. Our feelings must have showed because the man from the factory told us we had better go home for the day and come back the next day to collect the remains.
The next morning we looked around the kitchen area of our demolished house for a pot to put our father’s remains in. When we arrived at the place where we had cremated our father’s body, however, a shock awaited us. The body still remained as it had been the day before, in a half-cremated state and covered over with ash. There was no one from the company around. We three brothers only wanted to collect our father’s cremated bones, but his half-burned body was lying exposed. The only parts of his body that had been cremated were the tips of his hands and feet and part of his stomach. We could only pick out a few of his bones.
This body, which was like a skeleton covered in ash, was far more gruesome than the corpse of someone just deceased. It was even more unpleasant when we thought about how this body belonged to the same father we had always talked to and eaten meals with. It got so that I could no longer bear to look at our father’s body and I said to my brother, “Let’s go home now and leave his body here.”
Thinking back on that, I know that it was not the right thing to do. My brother looked at our father’s body for a while longer and then said that there was nothing more we could do except to take his skull home. My brother had brought tongs, but when the tongs touched our father’s skull it crumbled apart like a plaster model and the half-burned brains came flowing out. Letting out a scream, my brother threw down the tongs and darted away. The other two of us ran after him. These were the circumstances under which we forsook our father’s body.
I think that all people who lost family members and others close to them in the atomic bombing went through experiences similar to this. There were approximately 74,000 people who were killed in an instant by that one, single atomic bomb.
These are scenes from the atomic bomb that will never leave my mind.
As long as they exist, nuclear weapons will inevitably lead to disaster. Please lend us your strength to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth and make sure that Nagasaki is the last place on the Earth to suffer an atomic bomb. Let us all work together, all of us, to build a peaceful world, a world free of war. The atomic bomb is not an ordinary weapon, so it should not be used in any war. As you know, even war has limits.
- Towards a humanitarian ban on nuclear weapons – Elizabeth Minor, 4 August 2016.
- Nuclear weapons: Rising in defence of humanity – Vincent Bernard & Ellen Policinski, 27 July 2016.
- Nuclear weapons: 20 years since the ICJ advisory opinion and still difficult to reconcile with international humanitarian law – Louis Maresca, 8 July 2016.
- The human cost of nuclear weapons – International Review of the Red Cross, No. 899.