“I was lucky as a lot of others died instantly, but I still want to know why such a horrible thing happened to me twice….” ~ Kazuko Uragashira, a niju hibakusha
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” ~ J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb
On March 24, 2009, the Japanese government officially recognized Tsutomu Yamaguchi as a double (nijū) hibakusha. He not only survived one of two nuclear bombings in the deep history of mankind, he survived both.
I discovered this doing some research on a blog I’m drafting about my own conflicted feelings of nuclear weapons and their past and postulated utilization. And besides incredibly witnessing and surviving the only two nuclear attacks in history, these unlucky souls suffer further injury and injustice from an enemy within: from unfounded and quite incredulous discrimination within and throughout Japan based on foolish fear, idiotic ignorance, and a sheer lack of compassion, especially in modern times.
In Japan, the survivors of the atomic bombings are called hibakusha (被爆者), or literally “explosion-affected people.” The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as those within a few kilometers of the hypocenters at the time of the bombings; those who traveled within 2 km of hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; those exposed to radiation from fallout; and those not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of the former categories. As of 2013, over 200,000 hibakusha were officially recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan, with roughly 1% having illnesses caused by radiation. The atomic memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki contain lists of the names of the hibakusha who are known to have died since the bombings; these monuments are sadly updated annually on the anniversaries of the bombings as the last of the hibakusha pass away. As of August 2013, the memorials record almost 450,000 deceased hibakusha.
Yamaguchi-san was confirmed to be 3 km (1.9 mi) from ground zero in Hiroshima on a business trip when Little Boy was detonated. Yamaguchi recalls seeing a bomber and two small parachutes, and then “a great flash in the sky, and [he] was blown over.” The explosion ruptured his eardrums, blinded him temporarily, and left him with serious burns. After regaining his sense, he crawled to a shelter to rest, where after he set out to find business colleagues before returning to Nagasaki the following day. In Nagasaki, he received treatment for his wounds, and despite being heavily bandaged, he reported for work on August 9, the day Fat Man was dropped. Ironically enough, that morning Yamaguchi was describing the atomic blast in Hiroshima to his coworkers when Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki about 3 km away. This time he was unhurt by the immediate explosion, but Yamaguchi he did suffer injuries from radiation fallout while searching for friends and relatives.
Yamaguchi-san lost hearing in his left ear as a result of the Hiroshima explosion, and found himself bald at a very young age. His wife suffered severe radiation poisoning from “black rain” after the Nagasaki explosion, and died in 2008 (at 88) of kidney and liver cancer after a lifetime of radiation-sourced illness. Late in his life, Yamaguchi began to suffer from radiation-related ailments, including cataracts and acute leukemia. He became the first officially recognized survivor of both bombings, and died in 2010 at the age of 93 after battling multiple cancers. Since his infamous designation, there have been an additional 165 nijū hibakusha documented and declared.
Hibakusha and their offspring remain victims of severe discrimination in Japan due to public ignorance about the consequences of radiation sickness. In a shameful corner of a proud and peaceful people, many in Japan continue to believe radiation-based injury and disease to be hereditary, or worse, even contagious. This all despite facts to the contrary; there have been no statistically demonstrable increases in birth defects or congenital malformations among the later conceived children born to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s bad enough to experience and survive a nuclear blast quite injured. It’s unbelievable to witness and endure two such blasts in three days. But perhaps the most dubious part of this story is how the world can turn their collective backs to the very horrors brought and wrought by they themselves. While mankind owes the nijū hibakusha a debt that cannot be repaid, the Japanese government can at least make restitution (and it has attempted to do just that). However, it is up to the Japanese people – each and every one – to afford these (un)luckiest of the lucky the compassion, empathy, and respect which they so fully deserve.