Japan’s treatment of its atomic bomb survivors reflects its troubled approach to history and identity, but there is still room for hope
In the second Little Boy detonated over the awakening city, two-thirds of Hiroshima and a third of its people ceased to exist. Those who survived the nightmare of the blast were condemned to a lifelong nightmare of discrimination, misinformation, and abandonment.
It’s hard to know how many Hibakusha (被爆者), the term used to describe the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic explosions, there originally were. Wartime records were hazy at best, and many were incinerated in the bomb blast. Government estimates reveal that 227,000 are alive today, with the original number being upwards of 650,000.
The long-term impacts of radiation are now well documented. Increased rates of cancer, malignant growths and organ failures were all widespread amongst those who had been exposed to high doses of radiation. Periodic illness, pain and fatigue were suffered by those exposed to low-level radiation in the ground, water, rain, and air around the bomb sites.
Unfortunately, these were sufficient reasons for employers to refuse to hire them. With their past lives destroyed, and the ability to construct new ones for themselves denied to them, many Hibakusha thought they could receive help and support from the government.
When they turned to the government in desperation, the government turned from them. For twelve years, the government refused to even recognise that the afflictions of the Hibakusha were caused by nuclear radiation. Belated laws like the A-Bomb Victims Medical Care Law (1956) and the Law on Special Measures for Sufferers (1967) were instituted but still left many victims without financial or medical support.
There is much debate about why that initial delay occurred. At worst, it was due to active pressure by the US, who say payments and support as admissions of guilt on par with reparations. Less maliciously, it was because of a lack of understanding about the causes and harms of radiation sickness.
The radiation that sapped the strength and life of the Hibakusha was poorly understood by the Japanese for long after the detonations. The equipment necessary for diagnosis and research was destroyed in the blasts and occupied Japan was denied access to the US research into the effects of radiation poisoning.
In the place of facts, myth flourished.
Thought to be contagious, radiation sickness condemned the Hibakusha to being second class citizens, unable to interact with, live near, or marry unafflicted Japanese. Also thought to be hereditary, radiation sickness condemned the children of Hibakusha to the same label and treatment.
However, misinformation can only last for so long. Even decades after the bombs, Japanese society still refused to recognise and accept the Hibakusha, all because of how history and identity had been constructed around what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Bomb is one of the most powerful historic and cultural symbols in Japan, but its meaning is by no means singular. In what Lim describes as victimhood nationalism, different groups in Japan constructed narratives of victimisation around what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to establish a collective identity in the immediate post war years. For the left, it was suffering at the hands of unchecked nationalism and militarism. For the right, it was anger towards the Americans who had committed unpunished crimes against humanity.
The Hibakusha were excluded from these narratives for a simple reason. It’s hard to rewrite the history of people who are still alive. Surrounded by myths of their own, the Hibakusha were considered incompatible with national mythmaking. The solution taken was not to abandon the politicisation of history, but to abandon those that contradicted it.
However, in the same way Japan’s malleable national identity allowed for the exclusion of the Hibakusha following the war, it presented an opportunity for them to redefine their place in Japan.
Hibakusha found a powerful position through storytelling that allowed them to redefine what it meant to be scarred by the blast. The poems and stories of Hibakusha, like Sadako Sasaki who folded one thousand paper cranes in the hope of curing herself, created common ground in universal grief and mourning and integrated themselves into existing national myths. Hibakusha then found a political voice as a cornerstone of modern pacifist and anti-nuclear movements, which concern themselves with the future, rather than the past.
Japan’s identity and history is again changing, with fears of resurgent nationalism and a return to militarism. However, if the Hibakusha can preserve their developing place in the Japanese identity, then they will hopefully find the peace they’ve been waiting so long for.
Callum Dargavel is a second year student studying a Bachelor of Asian Studies/Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Australian National University.
This article was part of assessment for the course ASIA1030: Asia and the Pacific in motion.