Translated from Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg
I’ve sent the newspaper my photos of the Hiroshima survivors I’ve interviewed for the sixtieth anniversary of the nuclear attack. In the newsroom, they’re not happy with the results:
“I think you were too close when you took them. Their faces are a little distorted.”
“Their faces look distorted? Maybe that’s because these people have survived a nuclear attack.” (Confession: it’s true, I was too close when I took them.)
Etsuko Kanemitsu: I was 1.4 kilometers away from where the bomb fell. I looked up and a blinding light seared my face. A huge force pushed me a few meters, and I fell to the ground in the courtyard of the high school I attended. I was fourteen years old. I fell face-first, and when I got up I discovered that my chest and the front of my body, except my face, were intact. But all my clothing had disappeared from the back of my body, and the skin on my back wasn’t there anymore. I looked around me: everything that had been there a few seconds earlier had disappeared, including my classmates who had been lining up in the courtyard with me. I raised my hands to my head and I didn’t have any hair, just charred flesh. “Where am I?” I wondered. Only four of us survived, out of the fifty students who were outside the classroom when the bomb went off. I don’t remember how I got home. My mother found a doctor, but he said there wasn’t much chance I’d live and that he should try to save other people who were less seriously injured. My mother refused to listen and begged him, “Put oil on her face. She’s a girl—they have to be able to look at her in the face or she won’t have a future.” The pain I felt was unbearable, and it took months for me to recover. We never found my sister, and she was assumed dead. When I was twenty-seven years old, I married a man who had also survived the bomb. The two of us have spent these sixty years suffering from all sorts of dire illnesses, but we’re not so easy to bump off. We’ve defied death.
On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay took off from the Pacific island of Tinian, and minutes later it was tracing a white path across the blue sky of Hiroshima. There was not a single cloud over the city, and the airplane was clearly silhouetted against the sky. The sirens that had just warned of an imminent air raid had fallen silent. The little squadron of three enemy aircraft had been detected by radar, but the local authorities saw no threat. What could three planes do against the forces of the invincible Empire of Japan? The hatches opened when the B-29 was flying over the city center, and forty seconds later the atomic bomb caused an explosion. It was 8:15 a.m. The detonation was followed by a great flash of light, a wave of heat that raised the temperature to ten thousand degrees Celsius, and winds of more than a thousand kilometers per hour. A ball of fire almost two kilometers high and hundreds of meters across devastated the city, reducing it to ashes in an instant. Darkness fell over Hiroshima, and in the darkness the victims’ shadows were left outlined on the walls of the few buildings that remained standing.
Hiroko Hatakeyama: The day the bomb fell, I was in Nagatsuka Elementary School, in an area that was relatively unaffected. I was six years old. Our house was beside the road leading out of the city, and people were trying to flee down the road, their bodies scorched, many of them completely naked and desperately thirsty. “Water, water,” they pleaded. Our house filled up with the wounded, and many of them died in the living room. During the day we treated them with oil, trying to soothe their burns, and at night we cremated the bodies of the dead beside the river. My brother showed up three days later, dying. His mouth was blackened and his skin burned. The pain was so intense that we couldn’t even touch him. He died in my mother’s arms, and we went out to bury him when it started to rain. We didn’t know it was radioactive rain, and for days we let it soak us. Our neighborhood hadn’t been directly hit by the bomb, but for some reason it was the area most affected by the “black rain” that followed. We started to get sick. For many years I tried to hide that I was a victim of the nuclear attack: I suppose I was afraid of being rejected. Not even my daughter knew until I got cancer and started experiencing other health problems that made it impossible to hide the truth any longer. I got married and had a daughter who was born completely healthy, despite my fears. I never imagined that the problem would come later, when my first grandson was born. He was severely deformed, and I felt guilty. Then the second one was born, also with problems, and my world came crashing in.
More than 140,000 people died that August day in Hiroshima, and 80,000 more would die in Nagasaki. But what were the people dying of? The Japanese only began to understand what had happened sixteen hours later, when US President Harry Truman announced the “success” of the first atomic detonation over a civilian population. Even today, for most American politicians and a large segment of the country’s population, the nuclear attack is seen as a simple act of war. Heroic. Many years ago I went to an exhibit about the Enola Gay in Washington. I was struck by how proud the visitors seemed to be of that airplane and what it represented. The exhibit included photos with the proud faces of the mission’s participants. They had just killed tens of thousands of people. Why were they smiling?
Atsumo Kubo: In wartime all of us, even students, had to work in the government factories to help with the massive war effort. I was sent to a weapons manufacturing plant. I’d started working at seven in the morning, and when the bomb went off I was uncovering the equipment we had in the courtyard. The factory collapsed, and I was trapped. I had been burned and couldn’t move my extremities. I saw some points of light amid the rubble and dragged myself along until I found a way out. I couldn’t see anything around me, only hear the shouts of people moving in the darkness like ghosts. I started walking with two other survivors toward Mount Ogon, on the edge of the city, attempting to move away from the places most severely affected by the radioactivity. We took shelter in a military barracks that still had one building standing. The wounded kept coming, but we didn’t have anybody who could treat them or any medicine, and they screamed in pain until they died. Someone tried to take off my burned shirt, but when he did my skin stuck to it and the flesh on my arm was left raw and exposed. They put oil on me—it was the only thing there was—and no doctor could see me until two days later. When the American soldiers came, they set up camp hospitals, but we soon found that they had come not to treat our wounds but to study them. They wanted to know what effects their bomb had had and made us their human guinea pigs. I remember the humiliation of that situation as if time hadn’t passed at all. I can still feel it.
I wanted to travel to Hiroshima after reading a brief article in the newspaper about how the last hibakusha, or nuclear victims, were dying, taking their unique direct testimonies of the nuclear attack to the grave. Very soon there would be nobody left who could give a first-person account of what had happened. I had often read versions of the story that claimed that the atomic bombs had been a necessary evil. Imperial Japan had invaded the nations of the Pacific, raping their women and exploiting their men. They were responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nanking Massacre, the occupation of countries from the Philippines to Burma. The bombs had saved lives and put an end to the Second World War, preventing an agonizing land invasion. It wasn’t until I was preparing to travel to Japan that I started to pay more attention to the other side’s version of events, which is rarely taken into account when it comes time to write history. According to that version, the nuclear attacks were not necessary because the Allies had already won the war and Japan was on its knees. Its surrender was only a matter of time. To identify the real reason that Washington had dropped the atomic bombs, one had to look to the world that was beginning to emerge, divided into two opposing blocs between communism and capitalism. The borders of the postwar were still being established, and in that divvying up of territory, what happened in Japan was key. The Soviets wanted to expand their empire to the Far East, and to stop them Truman needed to end the war in the Pacific as soon as possible. The Red Army was advancing, and the Japanese leaders, huddled in a bunker in the imperial palace, were not yet willing to surrender. They wanted to save the imperial system, even if it cost thousands more lives.
It was hard to say which of the two theories was closer to the truth. Most likely both were partly right. What’s certain is that in a conflict whose dead now numbered in the millions, civilians had ceased to be considered at all. In the documents of the period that discussed the nuclear attack, there are no references to people. Power was calculated instead. Albert Camus wrote in Combat, the magazine he edited, “American, English, and French newspapers have poured forth a steady stream of eloquent dissertations concerning the future, the past, the inventors, the cost, the peaceful uses and military implications, the political consequences, and even the independent character of the atom bomb. We can sum it all up in a sentence: the civilization of the machine has just achieved its ultimate level of savagery.”
Kazuko Tarui: The day the bomb fell, I was happy. A few days earlier I’d gotten a job as a nurse in a dentist’s office and I’d started performing a cleaning on the first patient of the morning. I heard an enormous roar and quickly went down the stairs. I opened the door and I don’t remember any of what happened in the next twenty minutes. When I came to, I saw only disfigured people with body parts missing, walking aimlessly through the streets. I went to the prefecture hospital, where I’d studied nursing, and started to help the wounded. We didn’t have enough room for all the dead who were brought in by army vehicles, and my only task for the first ten days was to douse the bodies with gasoline and burn them to prevent illness and epidemics. The smoke inhalation has caused bothersome respiratory problems ever since. We used the little free time we had to go gather water. Two months later, exhausted, I fell ill and they let me go back to my village, seventy kilometers from Hiroshima. A year later they called me again and I went back to the hospital to help the victims. Every day until my retirement, I have lived out the full horror of what happened, taking care of people who were getting sick with terrible cancers, watching babies be born with deformities, and reliving it all like an endless nightmare. My whole life has been the nuclear bomb. I had a few suitors, but I was always afraid of giving them children who weren’t healthy. I want people to know that the bomb was only the beginning of our hardship for thousands of Japanese: after that, we lived a drawn-out agony.
Now that the last survivors of Hiroshima were dying, now that their voices were falling silent, the new generations would no longer be able to hear what they had to say. If it all came to be explained by statisticians, historians, and politicians, if we stripped it of people, doing our best to forget those moments when we’d crossed the internal border that divides us from the worst of ourselves, weren’t we doomed to repeat them again and again? I felt an urgency to find as many hibakusha as I could. I wanted to fill a notepad with their stories. To write down all their memories of the day dawn did not come. And as I did, with each interview my remorse increased. It was a strange feeling: I hadn’t been born when the bomb was dropped, and I was neither American nor Japanese, so I couldn’t be considered even remotely responsible for what had happened. But just as had happened when I visited Cambodia’s S-21 prison or covered a war, I was unable to distance myself entirely from those who had participated directly. However hard I tried, I could not see them as simple “monsters” or “animals.” They were people like me.
As I moved through the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, pausing before the images of the ruins and the suffering of the survivors, I grew more and more uncomfortable in my own skin, and it was clear from observing the people around me that they were experiencing something similar. As I left, I saw an old man sobbing. I approached to see what was wrong. It was an American World War II veteran who had come to the museum with his wife. “How could we?” he kept asking. “How could we?” Around him, a number of Japanese were trying to comfort him.
From El lugar más feliz del mundo (Kailas Editorial, 2013). © David Jiménez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Andrea Rosenberg. All rights reserved.