Living through the atomic bomb may be best thought of not as a single experience, but a series of experiences: the blast itself, flattening buildings for miles around; the radiation exposure; the anticipation of radiation sickness; and the discrimination from others who kept their distance fearing contagion.
For those affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, there are some echoes. There are major differences, too: the massive exposure to radiation in Hiroshima was intentional and far deadlier than the Fukushima accident. But what’s striking is how similar the public reaction has been to victims.
“We cannot see the radiation,” says Aya Kano, a Hiroshima native with grandparents who survived Hiroshima and an uncle who was evacuated from his home in Fukushima. (Read more about Aya Kano here.) “We cannot smell or feel the radiation. So, what shall I believe? I have no idea.”
In Hiroshima, Kano’s grandparents decided to get married in the knowledge that they were both A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha as they are called in Japan. Many survivors chose this route because it was the only option if they wanted to have a family.
“Hibakusha experienced employment discrimination in addition to marriage discrimination,” says Akiko Naono, a sociologist at the University of Kyushu, whose aunt survived Hiroshima. She says second-generation survivors, especially women, suffered marital discrimination too. Prospective parents-in-law, fearing radiation, would reject them, sometimes letting them know it was because they came from survivor families — or just from Hiroshima.
Naono worries that that they may be happening all over again with Fukushima.
Hotels, schools, hospitals — anywhere where displaced Fukushima residents have gone, they’ve sometimes faced ignorance and rejection. The city of Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture even required people who were seeking to relocate there to prove that they weren’t carrying traces of radiation. The has now scrapped that rule.
“It’s kind of sad to see those phenomena in Japan,” says Naono. “I feel like Japanese society hasn’t learned anything from Hiroshima.”
Someone who’s trying to change that is Masami Nanakida, an associate professor at Hiroshima’s Hijiyama University. She’s also the editor of a book that brings together the thoughts of Hiroshima survivors and Fukushima evacuees.
In Fukushima, the probiotic drink Yakult is delivered to people’s homes by so-called “Yakult ladies.”
With help from the Yakult ladies, who are trusted by the locals, Nanakida got Fukushima residents to submit poems and short essays for her book. Then, she asked Hiroshima survivors and their relatives to do the same thing. The result is an outpouring of pain and fear.
“We were evacuated to another prefecture,” wrote one Fukushima mother. “My child was nicknamed ‘radiation.’
“After we returned to Fukushima, we were told, ‘You ran away.’”
An entry by a Hiroshima man is addressed to his parents who survived the blast but are now dead. He regrets not having asked them more questions, especially how it felt to give birth to him “in the midst of tragedy,” as he puts it. “I didn’t push them to talk,” he writes. “Now it is too late.”