with many thanks to Kazuhiko, whom I spoke to at Hiroshima Social Book Cafe, Dohashicho (near Dobashi streetcar station).
Hiroshima and Nagasaki have a name for people affected by their mid-century apocalypse- hibakusha (被爆者, roughly translating to ‘exposed-to-bomb people’*). There are around 150,000 surviving hibakusha, many of them still living here in Hiroshima. Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet Kazuhiko, a tainai hibaku (in utero survivor) and perhaps the very youngest survivor of the atomic bombings. He received his own story in fragments, passed down from his immediate family.
Because of the nature of the topic, I don’t want to editorialise too much today. I’d prefer to share Kazuhiko’s family story, followed by some simple closing thoughts. If you’re in the city and you want to learn more about ordinary people living in Hiroshima, you should visit the Social Book Cafe on the 6th, 16th or 26th** of each month.
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The family home was a few kilometres from the city centre, far enough that the walls of the house could remain intact after the bomb. The local community was a close-knit one, where neighbors regularly looked after one another’s children. Kazuhiko’s aunt ran a post office near Mukainada, to the east, while his father worked for another post office, in the heart of the city.
In these desperate days of the war, most men of military age had been called up to fight, and so Junior High School and High School students were required to work on civil construction projects and remove rubble from bombings. Because of this, Sachiko (13), Kazuhiko’s oldest sister, was near the epicentre when the bomb dropped. Her body was never recovered; it’s likely that her and her father died instantly.
The bomb broke all the glass even in the outer neighbourhoods of the city, but the young siblings Tadayoshi, Aiko, Hisashi and Reiko all fortunately survived, along with the neighbors’ children. In an old-fashioned Japanese house with little glass, they were unaffected by the forceful shattering of windows. Undeterred, Kazuhiko’s mother walked towards the epicentre to search for her lost daughter and husband. She never found them, but returned from the wreckage to work at her sister’s post office. She later fell severely ill with pleurisy due to complications from the bomb, but recovered- one of her sisters heard her say ‘I can’t die yet‘ during her illness. She remained a devoted and ‘always cheerful‘ mother to her four surviving children; Kazuhiko was born the next spring, making five.
Sadly, survivors of the bomb were subject to prejudice in the years after the war- they often found it harder to marry, and were sometimes denied jobs elsewhere in the country. As a result, although hibakusha eventually won the right to free medical care, Kazuhiko’s mother was unwilling to sign herself or her children up. Kazuhiko eventually applied for his own medical cost exemption, aged thirty-five.
Kazuhiko’s mother died in 2000, aged 87. In all that time, she hardly talked about her ordeal- the story was passed down by Kazuhiko’s aunts, sisters and cousins. Kazuhiko himself didn’t fully understand the reasons for this until they were resolving his mother’s affairs after her death. At the back of a lower compartment of an old chest of drawers, they found a small dress- Sachiko’s school uniform, kept as a memento. After that, Kazuhiko says he understood: ‘the sadness was too great‘.
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After hearing the story, we had an engaging conversation with activists and newcomers to the Social Book Cafe. I was happy to hear that Aiko and Reiko still live near Kazuhiko, and the three have a close relationship (‘very loud‘, Kazuhiko said, smiling). We spoke about the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and I became more convinced that both need to be eliminated for the sake of a peaceful world.
Just like radiation affects even the children of those exposed, the aftermath of the atom bomb rippled through generations. Although Hiroshima was starting to resemble any ordinary cityscape by 1960, when Kazuhiko was in junior high school, in many ways you can still feel the effects of the bomb today. In my opinion, it’s essential that we keep talking about the people affected by the bomb, and don’t allow history to be depersonalized. If we can hear these stories, it’s our best chance of preventing this horror from ever recurring.
* this was difficult to translate, because 被 (hi) has such a broad range of possible meanings- incur, damage, injury, to bear or assume. This is my best attempt at a translation, and not an authoritative one.
** On the 6th, speakers will generally be able to tell their stories in English; on the other days, this may not be possible.