Lantern memorial at the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, 2007. (c) Ravi Chandra
I was fortunate today to watch a Japanese documentary about Yamaguchi Tsutomo
, a man who was in Hiroshima on that fateful day of August 6th
, 1945. Having survived one atomic blast, he traveled to his home in Nagasaki, and there was a victim of the second bomb. He was one of perhaps 200 "twice bombed" survivors, and in the years prior to his death at age 93, he became an outspoken peace activist, ending his speeches with a call for unity in the face of the age of atomic weapons. "One for all, all for one," was his motto and testament.
Deep feelings of sadness and loss permeated the Viz Cinema in Japantown, San Francisco; many audience members, including myself, felt their throats catch and tears flow. The bombings represent one of the most enormous human tragedies of the 20th century. Over 200,000 people died immediately in the blasts and aftermath, and tens of thousands followed in subsequent years from illnesses traceable to the effects of radiation. To this day, hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) suffer from cancers and other illnesses at higher rates than non-survivors, and in some cases their children have also suffered from unusual cancers, despite not being directly exposed. The legacy of radiation lives on, and we have, this year, an ongoing reminder in the catastrophe at Fukushima that even peaceful use of atomic energy has disastrous potential.
I remember first reading about the atomic blasts and the effects of radiation from writers like Jonathan Schell (The Fate of the Earth) and Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell and others). Dr. Thomas especially moved me with his descriptions of the drawings of hibakusha, portraying in grim detail the memories that could not be shaken. Babies with burnt flesh peeling from their bones; people parched with thirst begging for water - "mizu - mizu" - a wish which if granted was fatal, due to the damage their internal organs had already suffered. Water, life's most basic necessity, became poison to those touched by this monstrous weapon.
Thomas wrote that the words of men who contemplated nuclear war makes us want to "twist and turn and rid ourselves of human language altogether." I concur, but still, we must find words.
Mr. Nobu Hanaoka, who was an 8-month old boy in Nagasaki at the time of the second blast, spoke of the psychological effects of the atom bombs. He has always felt survivor guilt - "why did I live, while my caring mother and beautiful sister died?" He also feels anxiety at even minor illnesses, always expecting that he will die. This sense of foreshortened future is common for survivors of trauma, along with a shattering of one's trust in the world. How to restore hope to a wounded world?
To this day, there are people who justify the war-time uses of the atomic bomb as a means of ending the war and limiting the casualties that would have resulted from a full mainland invasion, and people who just as strenuously argue that there was no reason to drop the bombs; they were dropped primarily as the first shot of the cold war with the Soviet Union. This is an endless debate.
August 6th and August 9th are days to contemplate the awful possibilities of mankind, and resolve ourselves to do better. Pandora's box of horrors was smashed on these days, and again many times in our gruesome history of war this last century. Of all the crimes and terrors that flowed out, we must make sure that one message endures: War no more.
No more Hiroshimas.
Jimmy Mirikitani of the documentary THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI, with the director Linda Hattendorf, in Hiroshima, his boyhood home.
(c) Ravi Chandra, M.D., a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco.
Readers interested in more can read Mr. Yamaguchi's story in THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA by Charles Pellegrino, as well as watch films by Steven Okazaki (WHITE LIGHT, BLACK RAIN; THE MUSHROOM CLUB; and SURVIVORS)
Author's note: Some readers have pointed out that Japan has never fully and appropriately apologized for past war crimes, and hasn't paid reparations. Of course I understand and agree with these criticisms - see my article on Iris Chang, for example. Still, atomic bombs remain a threat, and a main horror of the last century.