Friday, 6 August 2010

Hiroshima - survivors stories

Five years ago the Sunday Herald sent me to Japan to hear the stories of the Hibakusha, the survivors of the Hiroshima atom bomb.

Today, 6th of August, the solemn anniversary of that first atomic bombing, I've been re-reading their incredible testimony.

Hiroshima was one of the most fascinating assignments I've undertaken. Being in Japan gave an eye-opening perspective on the nuclear chess game being played across the China Sea and the oral history from the interviewees was very humbling, and very poignant.

Sunao Tsuboi, the hilarious old man who sang Old Lang's Syne for us at the very spot where he was nearly vapourised, is still going strong as far as I know. Do take time to read his story.


Sunday Herald, Jul 31, 2005, by Torcuil Crichton


MOST of us can only imagine death, but Sunao Tsuboi has a memory of it.

Standing on Miyuki Bridge in the middle of Hiroshima, the very spot where he looked into the yawning maw that had swallowed so many lives that morning almost 60 years ago, he is separated from us by a veil of experience.

Most of us only read history but Sunao Tsuboi, he is testimony. As a 20-year-old student, Tsuboi stood little more than 600 metres from the centre of the blast: the original ground zero.

He was thrown back 10 metres and horribly burnt. "People talk about a mushroom cloud, "says Tsuboi, "but all I saw was a white flash." Against the roar of rush-hour traffic on the bridge, Tsuboi speaks, leading us on a journey back to the morning of August 6, travelling beyond the mushroom cloud and into the very heart of hell.

We think of Hiroshima and, in our mind's eye, we see the symbol of Armageddon, the sculpted mushroom cloud of the atomic blast: a rising column with a fiery red core topped by a bubbling mass of purple-tinged turbulence.

The mushroom cloud is an awesome but abstract image, and as it blistered above Hiroshima it was probably its very lack of any human quality that caused Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay - the plane that dropped the bomb - to pound the pilot's shoulder and shout: "My God. Look at that son of a bitch go!" In the mission log, he was more restrained, recording: "My God, what have we done?"

It was August 6, 1945. What they had done, the crew of that B-29 Superfortress bomber, was drop the power of the sun on to the Earth.

At 8.16am, the uranium bomb dubbed Little Boy exploded, slightly off target, 580 metres above Shima hospital in Hiroshima with a force of 15,000 tonnes of TNT. Massive radiation and a fireball hot enough to melt stone, with the thermal power to burn flesh at a distance of 3.5km, was unleashed, followed by a blast of air that travelled at 28 metres a second, flattening everything in its path out to a radius of 2km. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki suffered the same fate through the 21,000 kilotonne blast of the Fat Man plutonium bomb.

In Hiroshima, at least 40,000 people were killed instantly: vapourised by the heat of the blast or burned by the fireball that swept through the city. During the years that followed, thousands more would die from radiation sickness. In fact, the explosion that caused a moment of blinding light on that August morning has been killing ever since. By the end of 1945, 70,000 had died from their injuries; a conservative estimate of the death toll is 200,000.

As an aide memoir, Tsuboi ponts to a photograph which was taken here, beside the Miyuki Bridge, on that morning of reckoning, three hours after the Hiroshima bomb heralded the most profound change in the course of human history.

The camera came of age in the second world war, documenting the Blitz, the cult of Hitlerism, the Dresden bombings, the horrors of the death camps. But at Hiroshima there is almost a hole in history; there are remarkably few images. Just five pictures taken that morning by newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige survive.

Only two people in his Miyuki Bridge photo are still alive. Tsuboi is one of them.

Matsushige wandered around Hiroshima for 10 hours that day, carrying one of the few cameras that survived the atomic bombing, and two rolls of film with 24 possible exposures. He could only bring himself to push the shutter seven times.

The black-and-white picture is grainy, the detail smeared by long exposure, but it freezes the apocalypse that unfurled across the city that morning. A young, shavenheaded Tsuboi can be clearly seen cowering like a frightened animal among other survivors against the parapet of the bridge.

"I thought I would die here at the end of this bridge, so I wrote the inscription, 'Tsuboi died here', with a stone on the road, " he says. "My skin was so tattered, my hands so feeble, that the writing didn't last.

But that is what I thought: that this was the end. This bridge was the border between life and death."

Most of us think we feel pain but Sunao Tsuboi bears the scars. The old man wears thick lines of blue kohl drawn across his forehead where his eyebrows ought to be. It creates a slightly comic effect that may be a deliberate distraction from his other features. His ears look like wax that has melted in the heat and then reset on cooling. His forehead is pink-scarred and the backs of his hands are layers of candled skin. Twice he has been struck by cancer and his heart has been weakened.

"As you can see, I was severely exposed.

My ears were torn off, my face was burnt black. My skin came off - all of it. My mouth was swollen, like a monster. Half the sleeves of my shirt were blown away and my trousers were torn off below the knee. My hands were burnt black and blood ran down my arms. Dark blood ran from my upper hips to my legs."

In the picture, nobody is looking into the camera lens as Matsushige releases the shutter. It is difficult to tell if it is ragged clothes or charred skin that hangs from their arms. Matsushige, who could not focus through his tears, recalled that children were screaming all around him. In the picture everyone appears to stare mutely at the tornado of flame and smoke rushing across the city, but as you study the image you can hear their mewing pain.

Little wonder that Matsushige's eyes failed him in the ghoulish darkness of that day. "I was overwhelmed by the destructive power of the blast, " says Tsuboi. "I saw terrible sights: people with their eyes dangling out, people with their flesh stripped off to the bone, people who couldn't walk. A woman in her 30s who'd been impaled with a stick which had been pulled out, taking her intestines with it. She was trying to put them back inside her body. Thousands of those miserable people I encountered.

"There were seven rivers in Hiroshima and everyone, all the people, jumped into the water, young or old, whether they could swim or not, because they hurt so much from their burns. I saw rivers full of corpses: thousands of bodies."

Tsuboi survived with the help of many hands. He has no real memory of the first 40 days during which he drifted in and out of coma. "Every day the doctor would come and look at me and every day he said I would die."

By the following January, Tsuboi could not even walk. But he would not die, either.

"I had lost my hair, I was bleeding from my gums, I had a high temperature and I was infested by maggots. My body was rotting."

His mother picked all the maggots from his suppurating wounds and eventually he crawled and then walked to health. "I say health but I have been hospitalised 10 times by radiation diseases - three times declared critical and my family called to my bedside. I have to admit I am getting bored with death."

There were years of bitter tears. "The atom bomb changed my life around 180 degrees. I kept thinking if there was no A-bomb . . . if there had been no war . . . I could have pursued my dream of inventing something. In that regard I hated the United States and I was envious of those who escaped the A-bomb and made their way in life."

The Hibakusha, as the survivors of the bomb are known, suffered tremendous discrimination and were ostracised after the war.

"Medical opinion was that we would die early so nobody would seriously contemplate marriage to someone like that, " says Tsuboi. He twists his scarred face into a gargoyle. "If they were disfigured, women especially confronted a much more serious situation. Some are still single to this day. They have been denied love."

Having lost his first girlfriend in the A-bomb attack, Tsuboi fell in love with another but her family would not approve marriage. "So we tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills but I didn't know how many we should take and the attempt failed, " says Tsuboi. "I felt so awful. I couldn't die. We couldn't get married and we could not get to heaven together."

Like Jacob labouring in Laban's fields, Tsuboi persisted for another seven years until his sweetheart's family relented.

"Our marriage, after all this hardship, never faltered. We have three children and seven grandchildren, " he says, grinning.

THE immediate death toll of mass bombing raids on cities such as Dresden and Tokyo, may have been higher, but the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs kept on killing long after peace had been delivered.

At first, the Western press described the hitherto unknown effects of radiation as a mystery illness, and as a naive world struggled to find a moral context for the bomb's killing power, doctors were baffled by the soaring death rates. Nobody knew - and nobody yet knows - how to treat the keloids, the genetic mutations, bonemarrow destruction, the internal bleeding, the cancers, the premature deaths, that follow exposure to high-level radiation.

To begin with, nobody was overly concerned. The Pacific war had been cut short, a do $2 billion US gamble on the A-bomb had paid off and the lives of thousands of US marines who would otherwise have had to fight the Japanese army every inch of the way had been saved. Confidence about the benefits of the new atomic age was only tempered when the New Yorker magazine, in August 1946, cleared an entire edition for a report by John Hersey, which gave the still- dying bomb survivors a voice among the millions of words of self- congratulation.

The article crystalised a sense of moral unease about the use of nuclear weapons.

Later, there would be debates about whether the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, would have surrendered anyway or whether the bombs were just a live experiment to forestall Russia's entry into the Japanese theatre and prove America's dominance in the post-war situation. Details of Japan's barbaric treatment of prisoners and captured colonies and the fear of the communist might of Russia served effectively as justification against the doubters.

Moral qualms did not, however, prevent the world from embracing the prospect of Armageddon. As the century progressed, the US and Russia created massive nuclear stockpiles with the potential to destroy each other. For a while, Dr Strangeloves, such as Herman Kahn, tried to convince us that nuclear war was survivable, but over Cuba, the superpowers stared into the abyss, then blinked and withdrew from the brink. The threat of destroying the world several times over only subsided in the 1980s when the communist system bankrupted itself and Mikhail Gorbachev declared the nuclear poker game over.

By then, Britain had spent billions of pounds pursuing an independent atomic deterrent (and is about to do so again on a new generation of Trident missiles from the US). Post-imperial prestige, and seats on the UN Security Council, were purchased through ownership, or leasing, of nuclear deterrents. France also developed its own bomb and continued testing as late as 1996.

Voices of dissent were raised through the mass civic protest movements against atomic weapons that began mobilising during the 1950s. Like many from Hiroshima, Tsuboi has been around the world campaigning against nuclear weapons. From New York to North Korea, he has been astonished at how little the public knows about the effects of nuclear weaponry, and he is driven to do something about it by a sense of haunted responsibility; even guilt.

When the Japanese army arrived in Hiroshima, after the bombing, the only people they rescued were young men trained to use rifles. "I still hear the voice of the soldier shouting at me, " Tsuboi recalls. "'Get this young man on a truck, ' he said. It's then I realised how militaristic, how inhuman we had become, to only help young men and treat everyone else as if they were cabbage."


HIROSHIMA today is a modern city rebuilt from the ashes of the military hub, with widened tree-lined boulevards that are home to one million people and a centre for advanced manufacturing and technical research.

It should be an ordinary city but the wounds inflicted by the bomb remain very public. There is a museum, a peace shrine in a memorial park, peace boulevards and the skeletal remains of the A- bomb dome, the former Industrial Promotion hall that stands witness to the destructive power of the world's first A-bombing.

In the Peace Park, Japanese schoolchildren politely cajole visitors into filling out questionnaires on such profundities as:

"How do you feel about the 9/11 attacks on New York?" and "How can the war in Iraq be solved?" It is impossible, as a visitor at any rate, to escape the baleful legacy that the bomb bequeathed the city.

Late at night, with a heavy, yellow moon slung low in the sky and the cicadas whirring in the trees, we are walking back to our hotel when the paean of a trumpet draws us to the fringes of the Peace Park.

Below the illuminated A-bomb dome, Yoshitaka Shimizu is practising his trumpet by the river.

In broken English, the young academic tells us he wants to be like Clifford Brown, the black American jazz genius who died in 1956 in a car accident on the Pennsylvania turnpike. We ask why he chooses to play here, in the shadow of such tragedy. "My grandmother died three years ago with cancer of the spine, " says Shimizu. "She was in Hiroshima at the time of the bomb. I come here so that my gran can hear my stuff."

In Hiroshima, the story of that day never ends, and parts of it have never been told.

The censored dispatches of Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller from the blasted city were only uncovered by his son earlier this year. Days after the attack, he reported a mysterious "Disease X", or radiation sickness, as did Australian war correspondent Wilfred Burchett, who successfully evaded the US censors.

Burchett began his dispatch: "In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as an atomic plague."

"Hiroshima, " he wrote, "does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world."

IN another part of town, after much ritual bowing, smiles, mutual nodding and offers of green tea, Aiko Kobi, a nightingale-scaled woman wearing pale pink plumage, sits in the alcove of an air- conditioned cafe.

Time has shrivelled her, the table top seems almost too high, but her personality has not shrunk and her voice tinkles like a crystal glass behind a broad smile, lipsticked to hide her scars.

For six decades she has carried a terrible story in her head. Only now, with the gentle persuasion of her 25-year-old granddaughter who sits by her side, is she ready to give it up. Because she has experienced something that nobody ever should, we ought to listen to her. She clears her throat with a chirrup and we lean forward to hear words that she found unutterable for six decades.

I hesitated to tell my story because I wondered if I was entitled to speak, " says Kobi. "I didn't suffer from severe burns and all my injuries healed, although my lips still hurt even when I was in my 50s."

There was no noise; just a flash, and in an instant she was buried under a two-storey home that stood on this very corner site where we now sip tea.

"It was pitch black, I couldn't see anything. I cried for help and my father called out, telling me not to move my head. I followed his instructions and, little by little, I was able to move out into the garden."

In the open air, 1.5 km from the centre of the explosion, Kobi was confronted by hell.

"The house was devastated; the one next door was on fire. I was bleeding from shattered glass, and shoeless. We started walking southwards, barefoot because there was nothing else to do and no other way to go."

For some reason - common humanity, perhaps - she grabbed the hand of a six year-old boy she found crying in the rubble, and looked after him for the next few days.

Being short-sighted and without her spectacles saved Aiko Kobi from some of the horror. But she could not block out all of her senses. "The sound I remember most vividly is from the hospital," she says.

"There was a boy who collapsed. He fell down in front of us in his death throes. The boy crying: I still hear that, and the smell of burned flesh. It's beyond description.

"There were other people with pitch black faces. Their skin was burned off and their clothes were shredded; women stripped naked by the blast. Their skin was peeled off. People walked like ghosts with their arms stretched out in pain."

Kobi and the child spent that night in the mountains but, unaware of the dangers of radioactivity, they returned to the city the next day to search for the boy's relatives.

They didn't find them. That six-year-old, Maso Yashida, died aged 43 of liver cancer that spread through his body.

Surviving the explosion was one thing. Then came the aftermath. "For months, " recalls Kobi, "my injuries were inflamed and infected and didn't heal." There were few medicines and doctors had to treat the burns victims first. Twenty years later, Kobi's father would still find shards of glass being pushed out from his scalp. With their family destroyed, both father and daughter considered retreating from society to become priests and tend the family shrine.

A year later, aged 21, Kobi married a man who had lost his wife in the Hiroshima raid and became stepmother to his six-year-old daughter. "It was like starting from scratch. I had a new life, a husband, a sister and a daughter." The couple had two other children and their son inherited the family printing business, building a modern eight storey office with family apartments on the site of the house that had been destroyed by the bomb.

Each year, Kobi would visit the various shrines in the city to commemorate her dead cousin and her dead brother. Yet she never revealed her own suffering. It was only when her granddaughter, Maki Nakamoto, became a peace volunteer at the city museum that the story, like the shards of glass from her wounds, surfaced.

"I thought that without a special opportunity she wouldn't tell me anything, so last August, on the anniversary, I went to the park with her, " says Maki Nakamoto, who shares her grandmother's bright smile. As they walked together Kobi told Nakamoto what had happened. "I could tell how hard it was for her to talk about this, " says Nakamoto. "She didn't complain but the tears started to run."

There are hundreds of personal testimonies recorded on video and audio in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Echoing voices can be recalled at the push of a button. But today, when Nakamoto shows visitors around, she is imbued with the authority of her grandmother's story. Maki Nakamoto, a third generation survivor, provides a link with a disappearing past.

This coming anniversary may be the last major commemoration for many of the Hibakusha, whose average age is now 72.

But their story will continue through people like Nakamoto who received, after 60 years of silence, an oral history from the benign, bruised lips of her grandmother.


IT'S another one of those baking mornings in Hiroshima. Takashi Hiraoka, a former mayor of the city, stands beneath the shade of Japanese bead trees and Kurogane holly that survived the 1945 blast and have been replanted in a rocky grove along one of the boulevards in the rebuilt metropolis.

He worries that as the city prepares for this 60th anniversary, there is a danger that the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was bombed three days later, are being lost on 21st-century Japan.

"We really have to ask ourselves if we live our daily lives with our ideals in mind. Even in Hiroshima, children don't know what happened on August 6," says Hiraoka.

As a two-term mayor in the 1990s, he promoted nuclear-free local authorities, established a peace institute and grassroots exchanges across the world; yet he doesn't feel he has done enough. "The danger of nuclear weapons has become greater.

Look at depleted uranium shells in Iraq; nuclear is now accepted as conventional."

In his grey linen suit, knitted tie and silver hair, Hiraoka is a counterpoint to Japan's new casual dress code promoted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He has little time for fads, he says, or the Prime Minister and the empty rhetoric of the Japanese government.

"Prime Minister Koizumi always says he prays for peace at the Yakusuni war shrine. If he really does, he should reveal the contents of his prayer to the people. If he is determined not to start war he should withdraw his defence forces from Iraq."

Neighbours like China and South Korea, who remember Japanese atrocities during the war, are furious whenever the Prime Minister visits the controversial Yakusuni shrine for the war dead, since those it commemorates include several condemned war criminals. Asian countries say they detect the stirrings of Japanese nationalism.

The national anthem is being re-introduced to schools, after 60 years in the deep freeze of atomic peace.

As the Chinese and Koreans, the abused of the Japanese empire, grow in economic strength, so do their demands for contrition that will only be expressed in empty terms. Each night, Japanese television broadcasts another story about the threat of the rogue nuclear state, North Korea.

Through the distant lens, it seems the Japanese media is cranking up the propaganda of fear.

Prime Minister Koizumi's ambition for his country to play a bigger international role, especially in military peacekeeping, also worries nervous neighbours.

His goal is to push through a revision of Japan's constitution, removing the ban on "the threat or use of force", contained in article nine of the peace constitution that was imposed after the second world war.

Japan's constitution has already been stretched to allow self- defence troops to first join the UN in relief work overseas.

Then, in 2003, a law was introduced to permit troops to go to non- combat zones in Iraq. Prime Minister Koizumi wants to give the nation even greater powers and some conservatives have called for nuclear weapons to be considered for self defence.

The mindscape of Japanese politics is a presumption that war will be possible in the future.

That idea conflicts with Hiroshima's call for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons across the globe. "This is only an assumption but I think most people in Hiroshima and in Japan would back the reforms, " says Hiraoka.

"This city is a conservative stronghold, the majority in the national assembly is Liberal Democrat, so we are in a dangerous situation. It's only an assumption, but if it comes true the words of the August 6 service every year will be empty."

There are those who suggest that Japan has been too harsh on itself, too masochistic in judgement of its own history.

Professor Nobukatsu Fujioka of Tokyo University wants to see school textbooks revised so that education gives a little less emphasis on the aggressive expansion of Japan across Southeast Asia.

"Other Asian countries think they were liberated by the atomic bomb. They think it was a good thing, " says Hiraoka. "If they justify the use of nuclear weapons against Japan because it was aggressive to other nations then the same excuse can be used as a justification in future."

As East Asia grows on the global stage and the US angles for a Japanese seat on the UN Security Council, China and Japan - the world's second and third biggest economies - are not only seen as the sources of the biggest economic trends of the future but also as the cockpit of future conflicts.

"If we change the Japanese constitution, the message that Hiroshima sends out about the abolition of nuclear weapons loses credibility, it removes the moral restraints on other countries, " says journalist Akira Tashiro, the special editor on the Chugoko Shimbun, a local Hiroshima newspaper which campaigns against the universal human tragedy of continuing nuclear proliferation.

For a Westerner, Japan is brimful of surreal encounters and constant juxtapositions of tradition and modernity, earnestness and plain hilarity. Sunao Tsuboi, not just a survivor but a supreme entertainer, sprinkles tragedy with humour.

On Miyuki Bridge, at the sight of a microphone, he launches into karaoke - an ultra-serious pursuit in modern Japan - beginning by murdering a Burns ballad in parrot English: "Should orrl aqain-tiss be foh-got . . ." he sings, holding a warbling tune. "It's my Scottish song. You want to hear my Italian song? I have a song for every country I visit."

On the very spot where he wrestled with death, Tsuboi has us rolling on the ground with laughter. Here is someone who looks at a nuclear holocaust in the mirror each morning and sings a karaoke song at it.

After three hours of talking and singing, Tsuboi has worn us out; but not himself. He squeezes life out of every moment of the day, joking with another octogenarian, a doctor who was on-hand to provide first aid on the day of the bombing, and flirting with women more than half his age.

"I have to go home and make some more calls, " he says. "I hate anniversaries, always so busy. You know I am so tired of war, war is worthless. I am not blaming just the A-bomb, but war itself."

Before he takes his leave, Tsuboi wants to make sure we have understood him.

Despite his storytelling skills, and those of our translator, he somehow feels he has let us down.

"I can't forget what I saw that day, but even with the artefacts and the pictures, I can't begin to describe how miserable it all was."

It would be easy to view the streets of Hiroshima as one long avenue of victimhood, were it not for the emphasis that the survivors themselves put on suffering and nuclear proliferation across the globe.

The most striking common feature of the Hibakusha is not their harrowing stories, their scars, their unrelinquishing message of world peace. It is their forgiveness.

Hiroshima's message of peace, the museums, the park the memorials: none of it would be possible if the bomb victims did not have it in their hearts to forgive.

Somehow, that crouching, terrified, skinshorn figure on Miyuki bridge has found this amazing power to live through an endless nightmare. It is a quality measurable in the laughter of his karaoke songs and the tears of his suicide attempt. It is the distinction of those who abhor war because they have survived it which, in the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, is a unique insight into horror.

We may have the knowledge, but only the Hibakusha have the understanding.


Translations by Atsuko Shigesana. I can't find any of
Jeremy Sutton Hibbert's photos from the time but he has a photoessay on his website. Read his blog Tokyoland for an insight into Japan and life as a professional photographer. I made a 30 minute radio diary about this subject, which was shortlisted for an award, but that too is lost in the mists of time

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