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Story of Hiroshima: Life of an Atomic Bomb Survivor

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The Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, a building that was destroyed by the atomic bomb. The dome stands as a powerful symbol of the devastating impact of the atomic bombing during World War II. Its skeletal structure serves as a somber reminder of the tragic events that unfolded in Hiroshima, prompting reflection on the consequences of war and the pursuit of peace.
Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome in Hiroshima, a building destroyed by the A-bomb. Photograph by the author.

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.

Photograph of elementary school boys posing for a school photograph in five neat rows. Hirano stands in the second row and face is circled.
Young Hirano at age twelve with his elementary school classmates shortly before entering junior high. Hirano is circled in the second row from the front, the fourth from the left. Photo courtesy of Hirano.

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.

Beginning of Suffering: Atomic Bomb Experience

Born in 1932 as the second son in a Hiroshima family and raised in a suburb of the city, Hirano described his childhood as “the best time” of his life. He often played at a beach in his neighborhood, where he caught fish, crabs, and shells. He liked those “little adventures.” After Japan started a war with the US by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, his “adventures” became an important source of food for his family.

In 1945, at the age of twelve, Hirano enrolled in a junior high school in Hiroshima City four months before the US dropped the A-bomb. He did not have many chances to study in school. Facing a labor shortage due to the deteriorating state of the war, the Japanese government mobilized junior high school students to work. Hirano and his classmates worked on farms or helped demolish houses to create firebreaks in preparation for the US air raids.

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. If they had gone to work an hour earlier, they might have died. When the Enola Gay dropped the A-bomb, they were attending a morning assembly in their schoolyard, located 1.2 miles away from the hypocenter. Hirano described the moment as follows:

8:15 a.m. was our meeting time. Suddenly, a strong orangey flash, much lighter than summer sunshine, hit with a burst.We were not able to avoid it because we had no shade in the schoolyard. So we were directly burned. Well, I didn’t feel “burned” at that moment because I didn’t feel anything. Then, the blast came. It blew us over. Everything became muddled and chaotic. Darkness surrounded us for a moment. I was thirsty and it was hard to breathe because there was too much dust. My classmates screamed, “It hurts!” or “Mother!” One of them was looking for his hat and shouted, “My hat is missing!” Anyway, everyone ran around in confusion.

When Hirano looked at himself and his classmates, they had all been badly burned and their clothes were shredded; they looked like “monsters.” Believing that the US would soon attack again, Hirano and two of his classmates escaped to a nearby hill. When they found a bomb shelter, which was just a small cave, it was already full of sufferers groaning in pain. Engraved in Hirano’s memory was a man whose belly had been pierced by a wooden pole. Some soldiers tried to pull it out of him, but they could not remove it. Hirano and his friends started homeward after staying outside the shelter for quite some time. They could not help but walk slowly with their heads down and their hands held forward just like “ghosts.”5

When Hirano looked at himself and his classmates, they had all been badly burned and their clothes were shredded; they looked like “monsters.”

Hand drawn sketch by elementary school age Hirano following the explosion of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The figures in the picture stand in a courtyard with burns covering their bodies and skin peeling from its flesh. When Hirano looked at himself and his classmates, they had all been badly burned and their clothes were shredded; they looked like “monsters.” The effect of the sketch is to show the devastating impacts of the bombing on innocent children like Hirano living near the epicenter of the bombing.
His classmates looked like “monsters” right after the explosion of the A-bomb. Drawing by Hirano.

On the way, they found three buckets of water and gulped them down: “We were brought back to life.” As they continued walking home, they met a group of people who had come from the suburbs to help. Hirano got a ride from the rescue party, finally arriving home at around 6:00 p.m. His mother noticed that he was clasping something in his right hand. Wondering what it was, she opened his fingers one by one and found that Hirano was holding the burned skin that had peeled off his right arm. His mother cut off the skin with scissors, cleaned his body with sake, and made him drink a little of it as well. Immediately intoxicated, Hirano lost consciousness.

Hirano was prostrated for about twenty days. He suffered from burns on his face, neck, back, arms, and thighs. The most severely burned was his right arm. Hirano kept moaning in pain while lying on the Japanese-style bedding. His injuries quickly began to drip with pus that gave off a vile smell. His mother took primary care of him while his brothers and sisters helped. Hirano’s mother did everything she could to help him recover. In the beginning, she used medicine such as iodine, but this quickly ran out. She then used cooking oil and the juice of vegetables such as cucumbers to coat his burn wounds.6 She even applied the ashes of human bone to his injuries, although this caused him extreme pain. By the time Hirano was able to walk again, thanks to his mother’s devoted care, Japan had surrendered and the war was over.

Suffering after the War

Hirano’s burns have caused him tremendous physical disability and pain. They never completely healed. Instead, the burn on his right arm formed a keloid scar where the skin was elevated and hardened and had taken on a reddish color for years. Even today, Hirano cannot fully extend his right arm due to the deformed skin. The keloid scar causes him pain. He discussed the pain as follows:

No one could understand the pain unless one experiences it. The burn wound is still deformed. Whenever I move my right arm, I feel pain. I cannot explain it in words. Well, I would like you to have my body if it were possible. If you did, your face would be distorted because of the pain. I have endured such pain for more than sixty years.

As he remarked, the pain is interminable. It is unspeakable and therefore incomprehensible to others. Thus, Hirano has been able to do nothing but grin and bear it.

A-bomb survivors were avoided because of their unusual appearance and/ or experience of radiation exposure, which people thought was contagious.

Keloid scar on Hirano’s right arm taken long after the Hiroshima bombing.
Keloid scar on Hirano’s right arm. This picture was taken in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Hirano.

The keloid scar changed Hirano’s physical appearance from “normal” to “bad-looking” or even “dirty,” as he said frankly in the interview. He usually hides his scars from public view; however, he had to expose them sometimes, especially when he was working. In 1951, after graduating from high school, he got a job in a local bank in Hiroshima. He often noticed that customers in the bank stared at his right arm as if his scar appeared “weird” or even “uncanny” to them. He began to introduce himself as an A-bomb survivor to make them understand why he had such an “ugly” arm. He said, “I had to tell customers that I was an A-bomb survivor, though I didn’t like to do it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t stop staring at my scar, which I just couldn’t bear.” Hirano accepted the change in his appearance to some extent. However, he still yearned for a life without the scar and occasionally thought about what his life would be like without it. He said:

I’ve already accepted the ugly scars in some way. I know it was my fate. However, at times I imagine what my unscathed body was like. I remember that my right arm had beautiful skin. But this is just in retrospect. In reality, my body is ugly because of wounds and scars.

The change in his physical appearance influenced Hirano psychologically, often destabilizing his state of mind.

Photograph of 20 year old Hirano sitting by a pond. He is covering his right arm that was covered in Keloid scars following the Hiroshima bombing. He stares intently at the photographer.

A middle-aged Hirano stands in front of elementary school students as he discusses his experience of surviving the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath.
Hirano telling his story to elementary school students. Photographed by the author.

Suggested Resources

Teachers and students can learn more about the sufferings of A-bomb survivors from various perspectives by reading other A-bomb survivors’ personal stories. For example, Hideko Snider’s autobiography, One Sunny Day: A Child’s Memories of Hiroshima (Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1996), shows a sense of guilt as a survivor. A brief article on Shōso Kawamoto gives an example of marriage discrimination against A-bomb survivors, which is available on the website of Hiroshima Peace Media Center, “Survivors’ Stories,” accessed May 17, 2015, A testimonial video of Kan Munhi illustrates how a Korean experienced the A-bomb and lived his life after the war, which is available on the website of the National Peace Memorial Halls for the Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “Global Network,” accessed May 17, 2015, http://tinyurl. com/osse2u3. The websites provide memoirs and videos of A-bomb survivors in English.


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,

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,

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, 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,

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.