Hiroshima's Survivors

Listen to part four of the four-part series: 


This Saturday is a day of remembrance for survivors of the world's first nuclear attack.

It was on August 6, 1945, that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The event marked the beginning of the nuclear age. And it marked the beginning of the end of World War Two in the Pacific.

Japan surrendered nine days later, after a second A-bomb hit Nagasaki.

By the end of 1945, the death toll from the bombings stood at nearly 250,000. The victims were either killed instantly...or died soon thereafter from radiation sickness.

Today, a quarter of a million people are registered as A-bomb survivors. They're elderly now. What they saw, what they remember, and what they say will help shape how future generations understand nuclear war. The World's Patrick Cox has the final part in our series "Hiroshima's Survivors: The Last Generation."

The city of Hiroshima has two kinds of social workers on its staff: those who aid the general population, and those assigned to help A-bomb survivors.

Minori Nakaso is a survivor specialist.

On this windy morning, Nakaso's visiting an elderly woman. The woman lives alone. She spends most of the day sitting on her living room floor. She says she feels most comfortable that way.

"I'm 98" the woman tells the social worker. "No, I'm 96."

"Are you sure about that?" asks Nakaso.

"I don't know how old I am," comes the reply.

The social worker asks the old woman about the A-bomb.

But the woman doesn't want to discuss it. She just says "life was hard back then."

Minori Nakaso takes us to a nearby caf é after her house call.

She speaks about the city's efforts to take care of A-bomb survivors -- hibakusha, as they're called in Japanese. Right now, Hiroshima doesn't have enough housing for elderly hibakusha. There's a three-year wait to get into a nursing home.

Many survivors lost their families in the atomic bomb, says Nakaso, so they're all alone now. She says that solitude is compounded by the fact that some survivors chose not to have children, for fear that they would pass on the effects of radiation. Many, she says, are silent in their suffering.

Nakaso is an expert on hibakusha. One of very few experts.

Akiko Naono: there is this absence of any research or treatment of hibakusha's psyche.

Akiko Naono is currently doing post doctoral research on memories of the A-bomb. Naono says there's never been much academic interest in Japan in the mental health of survivors. Without having studied them, no-one really knows how to counsel them.

Akiko Naono: I think that contributes at least partly to hibakusha's silence, and them not being able to work through their loss, because they had to hold in themselves all the pain and grief.

To this day, the only major psychological study of hibakusha was done by an American researcher. Robert Jay Lifton first published his work in 1967. He lives in Massachusetts now. Lifton says what singled out Hiroshima's survivors from survivors of conventional bombings was the presence of radiation.

Robert Jay Lifton: "I found that the existence of radiation effects rendered this a lifelong encounter with death, an endless encounter with death, which they could imagine and fear extended beyond their lifetime. So, the scientific knowledge that delayed effects can occur and have occurred and that radiation effects can be transmitted over generations, those scientific findings can contribute to this endless feeling of vulnerability. And it's not just vulnerability to some kind of minor illness. It's vulnerability to a lethal poison."

Lifton says that combination of acute danger and chronic uncertainty can have a devastating effect over a lifetime.

And it's now been sixty years. The average age of a survivor is 75. Time is running out for Hiroshima's hibakusha.

Robert Jay Lifton: "There's a constant preoccupation now about their own old age and death and the loss of direct witnesses. The survivors themselves, the people who were there have a kind of maximum authority. In a way, psychologically they're closest to the dead and they speak for the dead.They sense this and they fear that the message will be lost."

That's what's driving some hibakusha to finally speak of their experiences after so long.

And here's where their mental state has something in common with others who have undergone intense group trauma. Their desire to speak is part of what Lifton calls their survivor mission.

Robert Jay Lifton: "Their survivor mission is to create some kind of edifying narrative about that experience that has meaning for the world, and then gives some kind of satisfaction and healing in carrying it through."

(sound of hibakusha speaker in Japanese)

You can witness that need to tell the story at Hiroshima's Atomic bomb museum. Here, a survivor is telling a group of elementary school children about what happened to her on August 6th 1945.

After the presentation, the children offer their respect.

It's far from clear how much impact these storytelling sessions have. For one thing, fewer and fewer schools send children on field trips to Hiroshima. Tokyo Disneyland is much bigger draw.

Also, the kids aren't always receptive. That was the case with Aya Kano, a 24-year-old Hiroshima native, who writes for the city's main newspaper. When she was young she went on lots of school trips and heard from many A-bomb witnesses.

Aya Kano: "Boring, yeah, really boring. I didn't listen, so I can't remember."

But Kano's take on the Atomic bomb changed last summer, when her editor at the paper sent her on assignment to an island in Hiroshima Bay.

Aya Kano: "I went to Ninoshima where a lot of people who were damaged by atomic bomb were buried. And I saw lot of human bones and I thought people who were buried were saying please look at me, and please remember me."

It was only then that Kano's status as a third-generation survivor became important to her. Her grandfather had died in the bombing but her grandmother was still alive. Kano peppered her grandmother with questions. She also submitted her grandfather's photo to Hiroshima's Memorial Hall. That was perhaps Kano's own survivor mission, and her own way of reclaiming the A-bomb story.

Kazuhiko Miyoshi is a teacher in Hiroshima who specializes in A-bomb education. He believes there's a crisis in teaching and learning about hibakusha.

The number of survivors is decreasing, Miyoshi says, so we have to figure out a new way to pass down the experience of living through an atomic bomb attack.

But he fears that the Hiroshima of 1945 is simply too remote for most Japanese children and adults.

Miyoshi is part of a movement that advocates a nuclear-free world. Classroom testimony from hibakusha is often Exhibit A in making that argument. Survivors have even occasionally been used to illustrate an opposing argument, favored by some Japanese nationalists, that the United States dropped the bomb for racial reasons.

Researcher Akiko Naono says both approaches exploit survivors.

Akiko Naono: "I think it's really really important that we try to listen to Hibakusha trying to follow along what they're trying to convey without really trying to reduce their stories to what we want to hear."

Naono has listened to the stories of more than a hundred A-bomb survivors, including her own aunt's. For her, what makes Hiroshima's hibakusha unique is how stuck they are in the past.

Akiko Naono: "I can't quite pin down what causes this but/the extent to which the survivors who lost their family members or who lost their loved ones - the extent to which they still are unable to put closure to their grief and still are in a state of mourning, I think it's significant, because it's been 60 years."

Perhaps it's living with the fear of radiation.

Perhaps it's the increasing indifference to their plight.

Perhaps it is the Hell on Earth that they witnessed - most of them as children.

Whatever it is, many of Hiroshima's survivors aren't healing.