The tragedy of sur­viv­ing a nu­clear bomb blast.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Washington Post.

Just be­fore a five-ton plu­to­nium bomb det­o­nated one-third of a mile above the city, un­leash­ing a fire­ball ex­ceed­ing 540,000 de­grees and pro­pel­ling a blast that pul­ver­ized build­ings and car­bonized flesh over three square miles, Wada, 18, was at a street­car ter­mi­nal, tak­ing a lunch break af­ter a driv­ing shift. Taniguchi, 16, was rid­ing his bi­cy­cle while de­liv­er­ing mail; an un­der­sized boy, he barely reached the ped­als. Nagano, also 16, was back work­ing in an air­plane parts fac­tory af­ter an air-raid alarm had sent her scur­ry­ing home. Do-oh, 15, was in­spect­ing tor­pe­does in a weapons fa­cil­ity, forced to wear loose-fit­ting trousers that the fash­ion-con­scious teen hated. And Yoshida, 13, was low­er­ing a bucket into a well when he no­ticed two para­chutes pierc­ing the clouds. “Hey look!” he called out to his friends. “Some­thing’s fall­ing!”

These would be their last mo­ments of nor­mal­ity, of lives that, though at war, had avoided the worst of it. So many Ja­panese cities had been fire­bombed, and Hiroshima had just suf­fered the first atomic-bomb at­tack in history days ear­lier. But Na­gasaki, one of Ja­pan’s most re­li­giously and cul­tur­ally di­verse cities, had been spared. Un­til 11:02 a.m. lo­cal time, Aug. 9, 1945.

Wada Koichi, Nagano Et­suko, Taniguchi Su­miteru, Do-oh Mineko and Yoshida Kat­suji tell their sto­ries of sur­vival in Su­san Southard’s riv­et­ing “Na­gasaki.” They rep­re­sent “the only peo­ple in history who have lived through a nu­clear at­tack and its af­ter­math,” Southard writes, and their sto­ries are en­tirely rel­e­vant in a world that still wres­tles with weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946) will re­main the clas­sic English-lan­guage ac­count, from the first flash of the bomb through the year that fol­lowed. The power of Southard’s book is less in the de­tail of those early weeks and months— though she cer­tainly does jus­tice to that pe­riod— than in the long arc of the sur­vivors’ sto­ries. The hi­bakusha (the “atomic-bomb-af­fected peo­ple”) suf­fered in­juries that nearly killed them; en­dured ra­di­a­tion-re­lated ill­nesses; and lived through shame, iso­la­tion, guilt and sui­ci­dal im­pulses. They fought a nu­clear war for their en­tire lives; the only vic­tory is in liv­ing long enough to share the ex­pe­ri­ence.

It took Taniguchi 17 months to sit up and nearly four years to be dis­charged from the hos­pi­tal. The skin on his back and arms had melted away. “He cried ev­ery time he heard the in­stru­ment cart ap­proach­ing,” Southard writes, “and when the nurses re­moved the gauze from his back, he screamed in pain and begged the nurses to let him die. ‘Kill me, kill me,’ he cried.” Por­tions of his chest rot­ted away af­ter all that time face­down in bed. “Sci­en­tific knowl­edge has pro­gressed enough to de­velop highly so­phis­ti­cated mis­siles,” he told Southard, af­ter a life­time of back surg­eries and skin grafts. “But there is no cure formy ill­ness.”

Nagano’s great­est pain was the tor­ment over los­ing her younger brother and sis­ter in the at­tack. Feel­ing lonely, she had re­cently brought them back to Na­gasaki, against her mother’s in­struc­tions, from their grand­mother’s house. She long blamed her­self for their deaths. “I still think I should have died in­stead of them,” she tells Southard. Her mother blamed her as well; it took them decades to rec­on­cile. “What have I been do­ing,” Nagano asked her­self, “be­ing sad for fifty years?”

Yoshida suf­fered se­vere fa­cial in­juries and was re­leased from the hos­pi­tal 16 months af­ter the bomb. Over the years he en­dured mul­ti­ple surg­eries on his mouth, in­tended to in­crease his abil­ity to eat, but he could open only wide enough for tiny bites. Yoshida even­tu­ally mar­ried, but his wife con­fessed that some­times she feared look­ing at his face at night. And he knewthat kids teased his chil­dren, un­til one day he heard his son re­ply to another boy: “My daddy was hurt by the atomic bomb. It’s noth­ing scary!” “I was saved by my son’s words,” Yoshida said.

Wada, an or­phan at 12, was old enough to re­mem­ber pre­war Ja­pan. He was shocked by Pearl-Har­bor and “ques­tioned a lit­tle whether Ja­pan was truly fight­ing to save peo­ple.” He feigned blind­ness to avoid en­list­ment, but was la­beled an an­ti­war stu­dent and beaten by po­lice. Trapped un­der a beam at the street­car ter­mi­nal fol­low­ing the bomb, he avoided sig­nif­i­cant in­juries and be­gan car­ry­ing oth­ers to safety, never know­ing who sur­vived. Wada, who re­tired in 1987 af­ter 43 years with the Na­gasaki Street­car Com­pany, spent a decade gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion about the 110 driv­ers and con­duc­tors who died in the bomb­ing. “When I stand here,” he says next to the mon­u­ment he cre­ated for them, “I re­mem­ber those times and can­not laugh or smile.”

The left side of Do-oh’s body was burned in the bomb­ing, hun­dreds of glass frag­ments were em­bed­ded in her back, and glass and wood gashed the base of her head. She stayed hid­den in her home for eight years, ashamed to show her dis­fig­ured fea­tures, her pim­ples smelling of rot­ten fish, and con­tem­plated sui­cide. “What had God given me this life for?” she asked her­self. Fi­nally, she be­gan work­ing as the Na­gasaki rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a cos­met­ics com­pany, hop­ing to help young hi­bakusha whose faces were scarred or burned. She moved to Tokyo at age 26, a brave move for a sin­gle woman then, and spent three decades there. Fear­ful of hav­ing a sick child, she never mar­ried and threw her­self into her work, be­com­ing her com­pany’s first fe­male ex­ec­u­tive. “Go­ing to Tokyo was the true start­ing line ofmy life,” she told Southard.

It took five years for Na­gasaki to count the lives lost. The of­fi­cial es­ti­mate was 73,884 killed, 74,909 in­jured. The deaths from ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure were drawn-out and bru­tal. Symp­toms be­gan as early as a week af­ter the ex­plo­sion, with fev­ers, di­ar­rhea, bloody stools, hair loss, pus se­cre­tions, hem­or­rhag­ing, loss of con­scious­ness, delir­ium, death. If you sur­vived this early on­slaught, ra­di­a­tion con­tam­i­na­tion con­tin­ued for decades in var­i­ous forms of can­cer and other af­flic­tions. “From the sur­vivors’ per­spec­tive,” the au­thor ex­plains, “the atomic bomb had burned their bod­ies from the in­side out.”

Southard de­scribes the bat­tles the hi­bakusha fought just to be ac­knowl­edged. It took more than a decade for Ja­pan to pass the Atomic Bomb Vic­tims Med­i­cal Care Law, which funded semi-an­nual med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions, although with oner­ous re­quire­ments, such as a cer­ti­fied state­ment by a public of­fi­cial or a pho­to­graph prov­ing your where­abouts at the time of the bomb. Sur­vivors also fought for the repa­tri­a­tion of au­topsy spec­i­mens— from de­ceased adults, chil­dren and in­fants, of­ten taken with­out the con­sent of fam­i­lies— that had been shipped for study to the United States; by 1973, some 45,000 pathol­ogy spec­i­mens had been re­turned. Fi­nally, nascent hi­bakusha ac­tivist groups ad­vo­cated the re­turn from the United States of cer­tain film footage of the bomb­ings, not shown in Ja­pan un­til 1968.

Southard is crit­i­cal of the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion author­i­ties in Ja­pan, which re­stricted sci­en­tific stud­ies and news re­ports on the hi­bakusha. She is par­tic­u­larly trou­bled by the Atomic Bomb Ca­su­alty Com­mis­sion, cre­ated by Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man and charged with study­ing the health im­pact on sur­vivors in or­der to bet­ter pro­tect Amer­i­cans in case of fu­ture at­tacks. Com­mis­sion doc­tors ex­am­ined the hi­bakusha, pho­tographed them, col­lected blood and se­men sam­ples, but did not treat them. “At a time when hi­bakusha were just be­gin­ning to come to terms with their iden­ti­ties as the only vic­tims of atomic war­fare in hu­man history, the Amer­i­cans who dropped the bombs im­posed on them a dis­turb­ing new iden­tity as re­search spec­i­mens for the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” Southard writes.

Em­ploy­ers were wary of the hi­bakusha’s po­ten­tial health prob­lems; oth­ers were re­luc­tant to marry them. For a long time their sta­tus was a source of shame, so they hid it. Both Wada and Nagano mar­ried other hi­bakusha. Wada rarely spoke about his ex­pe­ri­ence to his chil­dren; Nagano and her hus­band rarely spoke of it even to each other. “Their self-im­posed si­lence helped con­tain their grief, guilt, and dev­as­tat­ing mem­o­ries,” Southard ex­plains.

But the si­lence did not last for­ever. To vary­ing de­grees, all five chose to be­come kataribe, sto­ry­tellers, shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence with school­child­ren, ac­tivists, his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties and in­ter­na­tional bod­ies. “Their will­ing­ness to re­veal them­selves al­lows us to un­der­stand what it took to sur­vive af­ter sur­viv­ing,” Southard writes. Or as Taniguchi put it, “I re­al­ized that I must live on be­half of those who died un­will­ingly.”

Do-oh died in 2007, Yoshida in 2010. The youngest of the hi­bakusha are now turn­ing 70 — they suf­fered the blast be­fore birth, ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion in the womb. We will not have them much longer. Yet their story is as timely as ever. Amer­i­can politi­cians de­bat­ing the nu­clear deal with Iran would do well to spend some time with Southard’s “Na­gasaki.” It does not tell us what to do. It only re­minds us of the stakes.


At left, Yoshida Kat­suji, age 14; he en­dured many surg­eries over the years af­ter the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Na­gasaki, Ja­pan, on Aug. 9, 1945. At right, Kat­suji and Nagano Et­suko, whose brother and sis­ter died in the at­tack, sing karaoke in 2009.


NA­GASAKI Life Af­ter Nu­cle­arWar By Su­san Southard Vik­ing. 389 pp. $28.95

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