Hibakusha (Atomic Bomb Survivors)

The term hibakusha refers to survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the victims were Japanese. The term defines anyone who was in a specific range of the bomb, was exposed to radiation from the bomb or was carried by a pregnant woman who met any of those conditions.

The Japanese government recognizes 1 percent of these victims as being severely affected by the radiation. These victims receive government-funded medical care. The rest of the victims are allotted an allowance by the government. An estimated 420,000 hibakusha have died since the bombing.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of August 1945 were the first and only use of the atomic bomb, which was composed of uranium and plutonium. Toward the end of World War II, the Americans turned to the atomic bomb to force the Japanese to surrender. Between 90,000 and 166,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, and between 60,000 and 80,000 were killed in Nagasaki. Immediate victims died of burns and falling debris while other victims gradually died from radiation and flash burns or thermal burns. Those who survived, the hibakusha, were within a 2-kilometer radius of the bomb or were in the area within two weeks of the bombing. The thermal rays, radioactive rays and blasts simultaneously caused thermal, radioactive and blast injuries; these injuries were later known as atomic bomb injuries. The natural environment was also destroyed.

Atomic bomb illness, or latent injuries that took effect years later, affected the hibakusha. In 1945, some survivors became sick with leukemia. Other cancers that festered among the survivors included thyroid, breast, lung and salivary gland cancer. Infants who experienced the bomb while still in the womb developed microcephaly and developmental disturbances. Eisei Ishikawa's book Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, describes the traumas and injuries of the atomic bomb as unprecedented.

According to Ishikawa, the atomic bomb caused not only immense physical damage, but also intense internal damage: "It destroyed the actively regenerating cells in the body and greatly devastated the vital defensive mechanism. These heavy doses were the main reason for the poor repair, the prevalence of infection, and the extremely high mortality in atomic bomb injury. The atomic bomb not only brought tragic and horrible injuries to the exposed but also hindered the basis for the preparative and regenerative processes of the living body." The radiation affected the nuclei of body cells and their DNA, making them susceptible to cancers and gene alterations.

Those who were 1,000 to 2,000 meters away from the hypo-center of the bomb received secondary thermal injuries. Poor living conditions in the area contributed to longer healing processes, often leaving thick scars as remnants. Scars caused by flash burns became keloids in three to four months. Among women, exposure to the atomic bomb harmed ovaries and affected menstrual cycles. Approximately half the women experienced amenorrhea. Not only did victims develop diseases and carry scars after the attack, but they also experienced intense psychological and emotional pain. Families were left bereft of multiple members, there was a decline in manpower to the point that these cities were no longer functional and intense anxiety accompanied physical injuries.

Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, interviewed a number of hibakusha to reveal the psychological trauma inflicted on the victims. He divides the psychiatric conditions into three categories: anxiety neuroses, psychoses (usually schizophrenia) and organic brain damage (which may have been caused by radiation). The trauma accompanying the bombing may have led to individual cases of schizophrenia. Lifton's interview with a professor who survived the bombing reveals a paranoia often displayed by survivors. The professor said: "I have on the whole been quite well but I have worried about my health. For instance, when I became neurotic, I wondered whether this had any relationship to the bomb. I asked the doctor and he said it had nothing to do with it. ... Of course, even if there were a relationship, I thought, it can't be helped." Survivors are not sure whether to attribute their physical or mental illnesses to the bombing. The terms "A-bomb disease" and "A-bomb neurosis" have become synonymous.

The Japanese government did little to alleviate the situation, especially when the victims' needs were most urgent. For decades afterwards, the government refused to offer aid to the victims, rejecting the demands of the "A-bomb Victims Relief Law." Social and political conditions further aggravated the victims' suffering.

Hibakusha (Atomic Bomb Survivors): Selected full-text books and articles

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima By Robert Jay Lifton Random House, 1967
The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki By Mark Selden; Kyoko Selden M. E. Sharpe, 1989
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings By Eisei Ishikawa; David L. Swain; Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Basic Books, 1981
Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age By Laura Hein; Mark Selden M.E. Sharpe, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Especially Chap. 8 "Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Voluntary Silence"
America's Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory By Philip West; Steven I. Levine; Jackie Hiltz M.E. Sharpe, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Bombed Hiroshimas and Nagasakis in Japanese Memory"
A Dimly Burning Wick: Memoir from the Ruins of Hiroshima By Sadako Teiko Okuda; Pamela Bea Wilson Vergun Algora, 2008
Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945 By Michihiko Hachiya; Warner Wells; Warner Wells University of North Carolina Press, 1995
Were We the Enemy? American Survivors of Hiroshima By Rinjiro Sodei; John Junkerman Westview Press, 1998
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