Gannett News Service
Hiroshima, Japan – The mushroom cloud was a memory, the dead cremated long ago.
But Sumiteru Taniguchi, still unable to move off his stomach in his hospital bed after two years, was screaming about the pain in his back, begging to be killed. Michiyo Zomen was living in a tiny shack made of rubble from the war, so crowded with relatives that everyone had to sleep sitting up. Michiko Yamoaka was hiding at home so people could not see she was still bald, her neck and arm still stuck in one position, the nails on her fingers still black. They called her Ghost.
They survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II but they have never escaped the suffering.
Taniguchi could not leave the hospital for more than three years, his back so burned even his bones were exposed. It took 15 years for his back to heal completely, and he remains a prisoner of his thick and twisted scars; if he gains or loses more than five pounds, his wounds throb with pain.
Zomen continued to face poverty even after her home was rebuilt. For five years, she had little to eat. Her family spent its days in search of food to supplement its rations.
Yamoaka began to venture out of her home after three years – always wearing a bandana, then embarked on a series of 37 operations, which repaired her handicaps and camouflaged her wounds. She was surprised when she got breast cancer recently. “They told me if you have external injuries, you won’t have diseases inside,” she said between coughs, her eyes filled with tears.
Thirty-eight years after the bombs were dropped in August 1945, there are more than 370,000 people still alive who witnessed the attack, living proof of the political theory that it is possible to survive nuclear war.
But when the theory confronts living flesh still twisted and scarred after nearly four decades, the difference between death and life blurs. And the witnesses, their lives so devastated by the bombing they often envy the dead, wonder whether they have really survived.
Some are unable to eat meat because they saw so many bodies roasted to death. There are survivors who can’t look at dried flowers because they remind them of the brains they saw crushed. There are survivors who for years shuddered when they heard an airplane overhead or saw a balloon bobbing in the sky.
They even adapted their language to better describe the attack. As Eskimos have more ways to say snow and cold because of their climate, the Japanese have special words for their suffering. There is a name for victims of the atomic bomb – hibakusha. The medical term for thick, clawlike scars – keloid – is part of even a child’s vocabulary. And survivors often describe their whereabouts in terms of how far they are from the hypocenter, the place over which the bomb exploded.
They try to live in the present but they cannot forget what they saw in August 1945: the injured, who rushed naked through the streets, their skin hanging like rags from their fingertips, their faces so mutilated it was hard to tell who was male and who was female; the dying, who would plead for water again and again, begging even for saliva, stopping their screams only when they were dead; the corpses, which began to stink as they rotted, their half-burned eyeballs and tongues sticking out of their heads, being handled repeatedly by survivors in search of lost relatives; and the cremated remains that crying children shook in cans, the bone shards rattling inside.
Then, when the initial shock had passed, the mysterious symptoms began. People would wake up in the morning to find all their hair fallen on their pillows. They would brush their teeth and watch blood gush from their gums. They called it A-bomb disease, unaware of the bomb’s radiation and its long-lasting effects.
To them it was as frightening as AIDS is today.
Soon, the fear led to discrimination in jobs and marriage. Few wanted to marry a deformed mate, especially with rumors circulating that A-bomb disease would even affect survivors’ children. Employers did not want to hire workers who were always getting sick. Thus the hibakusha, who lost all their belongings in the war, faced a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment, and disease.
Younger survivors were more devastated by their wounds. One 16-year-old girl wore a mouth mask and goggles to high school for two years, so embarrassed by her scars.
“I lost all the good times of my life. I lost all my dreams,” said Suzuko Numata, who, at age 21, had her leg amputated and learned that her fiancé died in the war.
Until five years ago, she told people she hurt her leg in a traffic accident. Like other hibakusha, she felt no one could understand her experiences. The rest of Japan was so busy recovering from the war, survivors felt isolated and abandoned for much of their lives.
Only after being asked to appear in a film about the bomb did Numata begin to talk of her past. “The voices of the dying were in my mind,” she said. “I was telling the stories on their behalf.”
Now, she has become a full-time storyteller, the horrors so familiar she can sometimes describe them with a smile. “I’m not living for myself or my family. I’m living for everybody in the world,” she said. “I have to let people know about the dreadfulness of the bomb.”
Like the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers here, who devote their lives to auto safety after watching children die in accidents, many hibakusha now dedicate themselves to peace. When they say they hate the war, they rarely criticize the United States. Their talks are not aimed at showing what the Americans did to the Japanese but what nuclear weapons can do to human beings.
The Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who made eight tours throughout the world to help atomic bomb victims, visited Pearl Harbor last Dec. 7.
“We wanted to express our sorrow and make reconciliation,” Tanimoto said. “We were terribly sorry that Japan started the war.”
Taniguchi avoids politics when he describes his plight, focusing instead on how the burn over one-third of his body has ruled his life.
A gaunt man with a lopsided face – his right jawbone protrudes farther than his left – he tells the story quietly, calmly. He shows color photos of his back, like a determined traveler with slides from his latest excursion, insistent that listeners understand every nuance of his experience.
The pictures look like relief maps of mountain ranges, covered in blood.
“I feel there is a bulk of cotton on my back.” The scars are hard as wire, he said, so tough that doctors had trouble cutting through them when they were tried to remove a tumor.
The wounds cause more than physical pain. They made three women reject his offers of marriage. Finally, his aunt arranged a wedding to take place on 10 days notice. His family expected him to return from his honeymoon alone, for his bride did not know if his injuries.
“On the honeymoon trip, in order for my wife to understand me, I asked her to wash my back. When she saw my wound, she kept crying. She cried all during the honeymoon. She said, ‘Who will take care of him, if not me?’ ”
They stayed married and had two children, who are healthy now, although for years they suffered from bleeding gums and bloody noses.
The challenges of daily life remain. Simple pleasures, like a day at the beach, become a source of distress. “When I went swimming, I had to wear a long-sleeved shirt. People would wonder why.” As years passed, Taniguchi decided to be bold and bared his back. “I still need courage to take off my shirt,” he said.
Then there is his future: the constant threat of cancer.
Unlike other victims of war, health problems do not end for atomic bomb survivors once they leave the hospital. Radiation has caused increases in almost every type of malignancy.
Leukemia peaked among the survivors in 1951, the rate almost three times as high as in other Japanese cities. Other malignancies appear more frequently as survivors reach their 40s and 50s, what doctors call the cancer age. Those who were children when the bomb dropped are just getting old enough to feel the effects.
“When I get weak, I wonder, ‘Is this going to be the time?’ ” said Mariko Lindsey, who was only a fetus when the bomb dropped.
Even simple maladies, like nosebleeds, make the hibakusha anxious since those ailments can be harbingers of more serious disease.
Since survivors know these illnesses make employers anxious too, they sometimes hide the fact they were exposed to the bomb. Some did not apply for the special health benefits given to the hibakusha because they fear their companies might check government records. Others did not even tell their children they experienced the bombing because they have watched job and marriage discrimination affect succeeding generations.
Those with obvious handicaps could not escape the stigma.
“I wanted to get a job as a bank clerk,” said Miyoko Matsubara, who now works at the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center. “They told me, ‘We don’t want the survivors who are not strong enough to work. Besides, there are scars on your face.’ ” For 10 years, she worked where no one could jeer at her looks – a home for the blind.
Like other survivors, the bomb affected nearly every aspect of Matsubara’s life. Rejected from the job she wanted, she also avoided marriage for fear of genetic effects on her children. She lost members of her own family from the bomb, her brother and father dying from illnesses related to it.
The indiscriminate killing, the violent deaths, the continuing effects on mind, body, jobs, and family life – all these made the atomic bomb different from regular warfare, said Shinji Takahashi, a philosophy professor at the Nagasaki Institute of Applied Sciences.
“The death brought about by the atomic bomb was more than lethal,” he said. People were crushed, then hit with glass fragments, then burned in heat so intense it melted iron and the glaze off porcelain. “They were overkilled many times.”
There was so much death and destruction and it affected people of all ages. “The natural order of death was destroyed,” he said.
“An 11-year-old would have to cremate a 10-year-old.” In the first months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, 200,000 died.
Survivors must continue to live with these memories and with the guilt they feel for not having helped others escape. As they age, they are lonelier than most people since so many of their friends and relatives died in the bombing.
With the discrimination, Takahashi said, “the mental scar from the atomic bomb experience is incurable.”
“The hibakusha can’t help but be involved in world affairs. If we can abolish nuclear weapons, their agony and suffering will diminish. It is the only hope and joy they can find.”
They see themselves as witnesses for humanity, holding out their greatest hopes for the children, whom they think will work against nuclear weapons once they understand the depth of their suffering. Hiroshi Morishita, who teaches children about the war, needs no props for his lessons. The damage of the bomb is imprinted on his face – his ear a piece of shriveled flash; the scars on his lips forming a permanent frown.
As chairman of a group of hibakusha teachers, he organizes materials on the bomb for children of all ages, including first-graders, who learn about war through fairy tales. Some educators object that the lessons take time away from the basic courses. But hibakusha teachers say, “Respect of human life should come as the first subject to teach the students.”
So Morishita tells students what it was like when he was 15 on August 6, 1945: how he felt like he was thrown into a smelting pot; how his aunt was fine for a week, then started to spit black bubbles and died; how he returned to school the next year to find most of his teachers and classmates dead.
His speeches revive his pain but they also foster his hope that the more people understand the horrors of the bomb, the more likely the mushroom cloud will remain a memory that can haunt only his generation.