Keiko Ogura still has nightmares about the sounds and smells she experienced 70 years ago this summer, when the world’s first atomic bomb used in war exploded 2,000 feet above her hometown of Hiroshima.
The morning of August 6, 1945, was sunny and humid — few, if any, clouds appeared in the sky. Ogura, eight years old at the time, stepped out to play on the street just outside of her house. At precisely 8:15 AM a blinding white flash spread across the sky. The atomic bomb had just exploded less than six miles from where she was standing. Immediately, impact from the blast slammed her to the ground as homes around her burst into flames. She stumbled back into her house to find the doors and windowpanes of her family’s home shattered; thousands of pieces of glass now blanketed the floor. Thankfully, her parents, brothers, and sisters – who were inside the house at the time of the bombing – experienced only minor injuries. Ogura had escaped physical harm, but what awaited her outside has left emotional scars that will never heal.
Anxious to see what had happened, Ogura walked toward a hill overlooking the city. Peering down into a violent abyss, she saw men, women, and children in scorched clothes desperately trying to find help. Their lips were swollen; on some, skin was peeling from the heat of the blast. The smell of burnt hair filled the air, and many victims fled to a nearby river to cool their bodies but died in agony in the water.
“Mizu, mizu,” Ogura recalls hearing. Those around her were begging for water. Ogura remembers a woman who grabbed her ankle, pleading for a drink, but when Ogura gave her water, the woman vomited and died. To this day, tears swell in her eyes as she describes the experience.
Ogura likens the devastation that erupted over Hiroshima to that of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged northeastern Japan in March 2011. “Everything was completely destroyed,” she said.
Ogura is one of several hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, who I met during my travels to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities I felt drawn to during my three years in Japan as an English teacher. While I learned about America’s decision to use the bombs to end the war in high school, listening to Ogura and other survivors helped me gain a much deeper understanding of the lasting legacy of the bombs, both in cancer-related illnesses caused from radiation exposure as well as the deep emotional effects that linger to this day. Journeying through both cities prompted a desire to understand more about what made these bombs, designed by scientists who later opposed their use in war, so distinct – and to discover their true destructive force. This August, both cities marked the 70th anniversary of the bombs with solemn reflections and a call for Japan, also a country with storied war history, to remain engaged in the peace process. But alongside these messages for worldwide peace and nuclear disarmament, several stories of hibakusha, who dwindle in number as the population ages, remain poignant reminders of how the physical and psychological effects of the atomic bombs rage on, even decades later.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – bombed three days later, on August 9, 1945 – were almost completely obliterated. When the bombs fell, temperatures at the hypocenters (the locations on the ground vertically below where the bombs exploded) soared between 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Buildings tumbled almost instantly, and fires rapidly spread. Most of those within a mile of the hypocenter were killed instantly, severely injured, or burned. Those as far as two miles away also suffered burns on uncovered skin (clothing and caps, as well as buildings, provided some protection). Soon after the bombings, a “black rain” fell in both cities – the result of radioactive fallout mixing with elements from the firestorms. In Hiroshima, which at that time had a population of about 350,000, an estimated 140,000 perished by December 1945. The city of Nagasaki was shielded from heavier destruction due to its location between valleys and mountains, and because the bomb exploded off target. There, about 75,000 died in the immediate aftermath or soon after. The true death toll in both cities is still unknown.
Beyond the initial heat and shockwaves produced from the blast, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs — made of Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239, respectively — unleashed intense amounts of radiation, emitted in the form of neutrons and gamma rays. These high-energy forms of radiation have the potential to cause changes at the cellular level. In 1945, scientists already knew that ionizing radiation could cause health problems in humans, and clear effects of acute radiation exposure — diarrhea, hair loss, and hemorrhaging — soon manifested in heavily-exposed survivors. However, long-term effects were still unknown.
In 1946, in order to understand the full impact of the bombs throughout the remaining lifetimes of the exposed survivors, the Truman administration established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), a joint U.S.-Japan team of scientists and physicians who developed an epidemiological study (the “Life Span Study”) to follow atomic bomb survivors until their deaths. The team devised ways to calculate a person’s dosimetry (measure of the absorbed dose of radiation) and relate that to any possible excess risk in cancer or other health-related issues. Many of this team’s findings, unreleased to the Japanese public until years later, startled the world. Within the first five years after the bombings, rates of leukemia, a rare blood cancer, increased notably. This was especially evident in children, who, with tissues still developing, may be more susceptible to radiation exposure.
John Phair, a Professor Emeritus in Medicine-Infectious Diseases at Northwestern University, spent two years in Hiroshima from 1962-64 with the ABCC. At that time a young physician who was completing his residency at Yale, Phair applied to work with the ABCC to fulfill his national service requirement. In Hiroshima, he worked alongside Japanese physicians to study the incidences of leukemia, stroke, and urinary tract infections in Japanese atomic bomb survivors. He and his colleagues at the ABCC noted that radiation exposure did not change the type of leukemia developed in the Japanese, but that it increased rates of the type of leukemia already present in the population.
“It had been known since Madame Curie that radiation could damage human beings, but I don’t think anyone knew the full impact of radiation until the studies of the bombs,” he said.
By 1975, the number of cases of leukemia reached 1,838 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though leukemia was still considered a rare cancer, these numbers were concerning – leukemia was often diagnosed in survivors who were exposed within six miles from where the bombs exploded. The cause became increasingly clear: While radiation can be tolerated in low doses, the type of ionizing radiation released from the bombs was powerful enough to create ‘breaks’ in DNA that could cause cells to die or mutate. This radiation permeated the air and soil, and the neutrons from the bombs created radioactive atoms in the soil at locations near the hypocenters.
Rates of leukemia steadily dropped following their peak in the mid-1950s, but other forms of solid cancers (a malignancy that forms in a ‘solid’ organ such as the breast or kidney) surfaced. From 1958 to 1988, the ABCC observed 7,851 cases of solid cancers among 44,635 survivors part of the life-span study. The probability a hibakusha will develop a form of solid cancer due to radiation exposure from the bombs depends on the dose received, how old they were at the time of the explosion, and their sex. Higher risks are associated with those who were children or young adults at the time of the bombing. Currently, the RERF estimates that “for the average radiation exposure of survivors within 2,500 meters, the increase is about 10% above normal age-specific rates.”
Cancer was not the only health threat lurking. Keloids, abnormally thick scars that can cause psychological stress and impair movement, developed on those who were badly burned. Women who were pregnant at the time of the bombings often gave birth to children diagnosed with microcephaly (small head syndrome), which prevents the brain from growing at a normal rate, or other disabilities. Others who remained physically healthy could not rid themselves of psychological suffering.
Hibakusha now receive some government support for medical treatment (beginning with laws enacted in 1957), but in early post-war years, little was known about radiation exposure. Some wondered if they could get sick by coming in close contact with survivors. As a result, atomic bomb survivors were shunned within Japanese society: many found it difficult to marry, and never spoke about their experience, even to family members.
Ogura did not begin to speak about her experience until the 1970s, almost 30 years after the bomb fell. For her, recalling the day was too difficult, and she feared discrimination. While some survivors like Ogura have bravely come out of the shadows to tell their stories to visitors, others have never been able to overcome their emotional scars. Their nuclear nightmare never subsided.
Hiroshima & Nagasaki Today
Today, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are modern, welcoming cities with well-visited Peace Parks and museums dedicated to remembering the victims and educating the public on the long-lasting horrors of nuclear war. Both cities also feature academic centers focused on scientific research related to radiation exposure. The ABCC, now known as the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), continues to study the long-term effects of radiation and maintains offices in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of their current studies are looking at whether there are increases in cataracts, glaucoma, bone cancers, and cognitive decline with increased radiation exposure. There have been no demonstrated inherited risks of mutation in survivors’ children, which is surprising to many researchers at the RERF. Studies in mice by other researchers have shown that radiation induces mutations in germ line cells, such as sperm, that can be passed to future generations. Part of the challenge in human studies, however, lies in limitations in detecting radiation-specific mutations in human cells, though full details are not completely understood and are still being researched.
Researchers at the RERF are also using Geographical Information System (GIS) and other technology, paired with aerial photos, to pinpoint where survivors were and to calculate their radiation dose more precisely in hopes of producing more accurate data.
Physicist and biostatistician Harry Cullings has worked with the RERF for more than a decade. As Chief of the Statistics Department at the RERF, he researches ways to more accurately estimate the radiation dose survivors received following the explosion. “We know from physics calculations how much radiation dose a person would get standing in the open and given their distance from the bomb,” he explained. “So if we know where they were and we know how much shielding they had, we know how much dose reduction in the shielding there was and we can calculate that dose.”
Although research studies have not yet shown inherited effects in children of A-bomb survivors, some hibakusha I met spoke of the psychological damage that lingered in survivors – something very difficult to quantify in scientific studies. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who studied the psychological effects of the bomb on survivors in Hiroshima, described ways hibakusha often felt numb following their experience in his influential 1968 book, “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima.” Recently, Lifton has also described ways radiation causes “fear of invisible contamination” – witnessed again following nuclear power plant explosions in Chernobyl and more recently in Fukushima, Japan.
When I met Toshiko Tanaka in an art gallery in Hiroshima during one of my visits to the city, the psychological damages endured by survivors –– something I never considered –– became startlingly evident. Tanaka was six years old and walking to her elementary school about 1 ½ miles from the hypocenter when the bomb exploded. As soon as she saw a blinding white flash, she covered her face, but she still suffered severe burns on her head and other parts of her body. By the time she stumbled home, her own mother could not recognize her.
A week following the bombing, Tanaka lay with a high fever for a week before recovering, though much of her youth was marred with vision problems and other sicknesses. As an adult, she rarely talked about her experience, but she grew up to become an acclaimed artist, creating large mural enamel artworks where she would subtly express her pain, suffering, and desire for peace. In 2007, she participated in the non-profit Peace Boat, whose members travel internationally in order to promote peace and human rights. That experience taught her she had a responsibility for telling her story.
Tanaka has come to be able to discuss her experience, but others she knew were never able to overcome intense feelings of guilt and sorrow. In her presentation at the art gallery, she spoke of several hibakusha who “were unable to move; they couldn’t budge from their pain and suffering and are unable to share their story.” She recalled a friend she knew growing up who struggled with terrible scars that covered her back. She wrestled with feelings of shame and wanted to hide her scars. After experiencing a bad break up, her friend could not cope with all the emotions that gripped her. “She’s now in a mental institution all by herself,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. While Tanaka has been able to come out of the shadows, she is also not without emotional scarring: She said that even to this day, she is not able to eat grilled tomatoes because it reminds her of burning flesh. Tanaka and other survivors I listened to also expressed hope that the children displaced by the Fukushima disaster do not face the same stigma suffered by hibakusha.
Though 70 years have passed since World War II ended, visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki and listening to hibakusha stories have made the lasting impact of the bombs more present in my mind. Now back in America, I often think back to the words of Ogura, who remains a vibrant force in Hiroshima as founder of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. “I had a bad experience, but I have to tell my story,” she said. “Peace to me is understanding.”