“Radiation! Heat! The wind from the bomb!” When Shoji began to describe her recollections from August 6, 1945, she took on a staccato pattern of speech, gesticulating rapidly. A tiny woman with pixie-gray hair and a sweet, flushed face, she slapped her small hands together and pummelled her head with pinched fingers, as if to imitate flying debris from the blast. At one point, she pretended to fling burned skin across the room like zucchini peels. Then she closed her eyes and went into a deep repose, resurfacing with a sudden phrase: “I’m scared to meet people,” she said, speaking in the present tense of her teen-age self, who might also be herself at eighty-eight. “Something could just blow up. I’ve seen it before.”
I’d always assumed, in ignorance, that to survive the atomic bomb—to be a hibakusha, or “explosion-affected person”—was to have conferred upon you a certain esteem or deference, not unlike that afforded to the bearer of a Purple Heart. Shoji’s family wasted no time correcting me. To be a hibakusha, they explained, was not an honorific but a source of shame, a secret to be closely held. Even grandchildren have often feared telling romantic partners of their grandparents’ experience, worried that their genetic material would be perceived as spoiled goods.
Eventually, Shoji’s family planned for her to enter an arranged marriage with a prominent policeman in Taiwan, where she relocated in her early twenties. They kept her hibakusha status hushed, and refused to allow the two to talk before the ceremony, so as to better seal the secret. “My hands were shaking, holding my bouquet,” Shoji recalled. When her husband learned the news afterward, he spiralled into a rage that never lifted. For the rest of the marriage, Shoji’s daughter Minori said, “He felt he’d been cheated.”
The next several decades brought a parade of physical ailments that were easily traceable to the bomb: Shoji’s eyes and ears gave up early; her insides felt perpetually cold; her teeth fell out, requiring dentures in her forties. But perhaps most debilitating were the psychological symptoms that she didn’t think she could attribute to the radiation. “For thirty or forty years, I was so afraid of thunder and lightening,” she told me, as one of many examples. “It would just crush me. I just lost control.” Raising four daughters was a challenge of another scale. “Nobody understood me; I was like a beggar,” she said, recalling that when her children were young she faced almost daily bouts of overwhelming panic. At night, in dreams, she shouted, “The Earth—the Earth is going to fall!” “At the time, I didn’t know what was affecting me so badly,” Shoji said. “I couldn’t talk about it. Even before I opened my mouth, I would collapse with fear.”
But even metaphors of trauma as contagion feel inadequate, or even potentially counterproductive; for one thing, they can get mixed up with questions of shame and stigma, seeming to assign blame or stir up anxieties about contamination where the antidote to both is needed. And stigma, too, gets internalized. As a small child, Sabath said, when she began to fear a plane above, “I would think, how could I let the plane know that I was American?” She would beg her father to come along to Japan during the summers, thinking, “My white military dad—a Navy JAG officer—he signalled my identity, my patriotic Americanness.” Only in his presence could she feel, as the mixed-race grandchild of a hibakusha, that “there is no way you would ever harm us.”
When she reached high school, Sabath became a debating champion and made nuclear proliferation her focus. She went on to college at Yale and visited the White House as a student leader for Global Zero, the international nuclear-disarmament group, for which she recently authored a personal essay on her bachan’s “scenes of living hell.” “I hope you will remember my grandmother’s message and act upon it,” she wrote.
Read more at Hiroshima and the Inheritance of Trauma