On August 6, 1945, there was a clear blue sky over Hiroshima. Hirano and his classmates were supposed to be engaged in demolition activity in the center of the city around 9:00 a.m.
On August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The nuclear bomb exploded over the center of the city, completely devastating it. The area within 1.2 miles of the hypocenter was entirely leveled and burned. According to the city of Hiroshima, approximately 140,000 people had died by the end of December 1945.1 The energy of the A-bomb consisted of heat rays, blast, and radiation.2 Severe heat rays from the A-bomb reached people residing up to two miles away from the hypocenter. Citizens within 0.7 miles suffered fatal injuries to their internal organs, and many were to die in the next few days. The force of the blast threw some people for several yards and caused buildings to collapse crushing their occupants. The radiation emitted from the A-bomb was very harmful to the human body.3 Its short-term repercussions were called acute disorders, illnesses that affected the victims a few hours to several months after exposure to excessive radiation. Typical symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and reduced blood cell counts, which often killed the sufferers. In the long term, the radiation caused serious diseases in survivors, such as leukemia and other cancers.
This article examines the life of an A-bomb survivor, Sadao Hirano. Hirano is not a well-known figure; he is an ordinary A-bomb survivor.4 However, his personal story has a twofold significance. Firstly, it eloquently recounts how survivors have suffered from the effects of the A-bomb. These effects are permanent, and the victims suffer both physically and psychologically. Secondly, his life story demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit. Instead of being crushed by the dreadful violence to which they were subjected, A-bomb survivors have struggled, resisted, and coped with it. They are even able to turn their experience of suffering into a positive force as they call for peace through telling their stories.
The following personal story is based on in-depth interviews that I conducted during my fieldwork in Hiroshima. I met Hirano for the first time in March 2008. I interviewed him intensively in 2008 and conducted follow-up interviews in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015. Most of the interviews took place at his home in a casual atmosphere. Over the course of seven years of these interviews, I noticed that his attitude had changed dramatically, especially after he became a storyteller relating his A-bomb experience in Hiroshima.
1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, The Spirit of Hiroshima: An Introduction to the Atomic Bomb Tragedy, 11th ed. (Hiroshima: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, 2014), 41. The number of deaths varies according to the body providing the estimate and how they calculate it. The city of Hiroshima estimates 140,000, a number that includes deaths until the end of December 1945, because radiation from the A-bomb often killed people after August 6.
2. For the effects of the A-bomb on people, see Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, “Damage by the Heat Rays,” “Damage by the Blast,” “Damage by the Radiation,” accessed March 10, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/ptdlfxq.
3. According to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), “Radiation is harmful to health because radiation exposure can damage cellular DNA” and “DNA damage from radiation exposure causes various kinds of disease,” “How Radiation Harms Cells,” RERF, accessed March 11, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/otnv2pr.
4. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, Japan, in 2012, there were around 200,000 A-bomb survivors from both Hiroshima and Nagasaki living in Japan. Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, Japan, “Hibakusha (hibakusha kenkou techou syojisya) no suii [change of the number of A-bomb survivors (who hold the certificate)],” accessed March 16, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/oj93jnx. Unfortunately, the web page is only in Japanese.
5. Other survivors I interviewed also witnessed sufferers who walked in the same manner as Hirano did. They extended their arms forward, as this seemed to help minimize the pain caused by their burns.
6. During the war, ordinary people in Japan faced serious medicine shortages. They often used home remedies because they did not have enough medicine. Using vegetable juice was one such home remedy for burn wounds.
7. While radiation is well-known to have an influence on genes, the genetic effects of A-bomb radiation have not been scientifically proven. However, anxiety about the genetic effects, especially fears of deformity, have haunted survivors to this day. For a scientific point of view, see, “Frequently Asked Questions: What Health Effects Have Been Seen Among the Children Born to Atomic-Bomb Survivors?,” RERF, accessed March 11, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/q9hxj6k.
8. Storytelling for educational purposes began in the early 1980s and has been popular in Hiroshima. In 2008, it was said that there were around 200 A-bomb survivors who engaged in the activity, although this number was a rough estimate. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is one of the organizations that arranges storytelling activities for visitors.