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.[…]
“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.
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.