Hibakusha: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Beyond

Dr. Robert Jacobs


Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

Hundreds of hibakusha gather in Hiroshima today, and in Nagasaki on 9 August. Many more will stay away from such commemorations, preferring to spend these anniversaries in private. Almost all of these hibakusha were children when their families were attacked with nuclear weapons: and it is these grown children who remain to bear witness.

While over 70,000 people were killed in Hiroshima on the day that the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city center in August 1945, even more people became survivors of that attack. Many tens of thousands would die in the coming weeks, months and years, but some would live long and full lives. Their lives would forever be marked by this experience. Many have never shaken the trauma of expecting that they would die, having watched their family and their friends die, having seen an endless horizon full of the dead and dying and the corpses of people and animals burned beyond recognition, and of seeing their homes and city disappear into fire and rubble.

A child in the rubble of Hiroshima (Corbis)

Beyond the epidemiological and psychological affects on the hibakusha, the social impacts were often as devastating. Experiencing discrimination in marriage and employment, many were also plagued by their own worries about whether to have children, and by anxieties that every subsequent cold or flu that they or their children experienced might be the first signs of an impending fatal illness. In a sense the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki never ended.

While those who can testify to the experience of direct nuclear attack are shrinking in number to those who were children at the time, sadly, the world is still full of hibakusha who can testify to the rippling consequences of radiation exposure on health, family and community. Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Trinity Test detonation a few weeks before them, there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests all across the planet—541 of these tests were conducted above ground. Atmospheric nuclear explosions deposited large amounts of radionuclides in nearby communities as well as downwind from the sites via radioactive fallout. Much of that fallout consisted of alpha-emitting particles that remain radioactive from periods of several months to tens of thousands of years and cycle through the ecosystem for the period of their radioactivity. These nuclear tests, especially of large thermonuclear weapons (h-bombs) deposited immense quantities of radionuclides in areas surrounding nuclear test sites. As a result, millions of people were exposed to radioactive fallout. Many more have had their lives disrupted by their removal from their homes and the eroding of their traditions.

Flash burns on student’s chairs in a school in Hiroshima
(still taken from the US Army film, A Tale of Two Cities, 1946)

Atmospheric nuclear weapon tests have been carried out on all continents except for South America and Antarctica. Tens of thousands of nuclear testing hibakusha have been removed from their home villages, cities, atolls and islands, and have never returned. Others remain living, raising their children and their food in contaminated areas. Almost none have received any compensation for their health problems or loss of land. Some, like the villagers living nearby to the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, the Polygon, have been abandoned by both their perpetrator and newly formed home nations. Since both are newly formed countries, neither will take responsibility for removing these hibakusha from contaminated lands, or compensate them for the deaths of family members.

Global Nuclear Test Sites (http://nationaleconomist.blogspot.jp)

Nuclear testing hibakusha who have been removed from their home communities have suffered the social breakdowns that result from dislocation from traditional lands and lifestyles. Many end up living as refugees in the lands of their neighbors, and suffer the loss of access to plots for farming, water access for fishing, and suffer the social stigma of being outsiders. The Bikinians of the Marshall Islands were ostracized in the atolls where the US military moved them to even though they experienced no exposure to radiation, because they were deemed foolish for giving up their home atoll, a consequence of forced removal rather than an actual choice.

A mural by refugee hibakusha longing to return to their home atolls, made with origami peace cranes, hanging in the office of the Nuclear Studies Program of the College of the Marshall Islands

Nuclear weapon testing is very closely connected to colonial history. Most nuclear powers test weapons either in the far reaches of their empires, or among marginalized populations in their own country. Partly as a result of this legacy, most of these communities remain in isolation from other test communities, and from the world at large. They often define themselves in relation to the colonial power that irradiated them, i.e., they are victims of French nuclear testing, of Soviet nuclear testing, of American nuclear testing, etc…. Often hibakusha from affected communities have no idea that there has been extensive nuclear weapon testing in other countries. As with so many legacies of colonialism, the nuclear testing related sicknesses, deaths and contamination of land suffered by hibakusha communities have benefited from little or no compensation and no apology. The neglect with which the nuclear powers have treated them extends the damage and brutality, now an inheritance for generations.

Today we remember those who died, and those who have suffered as a result of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. On Thursday we will remember those who died, and those who have suffered as a result on the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. These attacks resulted in unimaginable horrors that the rest of us cannot fathom. Let us also pause to think of the unknown millions who lost their lives, their health, their families, and their communities to the thousands of nuclear weapon tests that were carried out with little thought of the human beings that were affected—subsumed under vainglorious dreams of nuclear superiority and victory in warfare. Let us pause to remember the nightmares those nuclear dreams spawned, and the legacy of death, illness and contamination they have left in their wake.

A sign warning not to enter the Maralinga test site in Australia, written in the language of the testing power and not communicating to the Aboriginal people on whose land the tests were conducted

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