Children of the A-Bomb
The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation. Best-selling novels on the subject are largely science fiction. Living in Hiroshima, I found that the survivors had great difficulty conveying to others what they had been through. They are suspicious, partly because they feel they have been deceived by groups which, under the banner of peace, have made use of Hiroshima for specific political purposes or narrow self-interest, and partly because of the Japanese tendency to be critical of people who stand out from the group (“A nail which sticks out will be hammered down” is the proverb); and, perhaps most important, because of their feeling that any vigorous self-assertion is “impure”—since the only “pure” path would have been to join the dead, with whom they identify. The question of how much the people of Hiroshima themselves should serve as living symbols is perplexing to them and to the city administration as well. To what extent should they leave the experience behind and permit themselves to look ahead, or away? To what extent should they serve as a symbol of death? There is no precedent for how a person or a city victimized by an atomic bomb should behave.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the children of Hiroshima, in this remarkable collection of compositions, have been called upon to solve this dilemma. After all, we ourselves have grown used to thrusting our children into the vanguard of national and international dilemmas and asking them to do our historical dirty work—whether enrolling them in schools where their race is not welcome, or wheeling them in baby carriages at the head of ban-the-bomb parades. And this may be only appropriate. Children are a universal symbol of purity and vulnerability. In a world as impure and lethal as our own, where else are we to seek a reminder of ourselves as we used to be, before our contamination by the barbaric instruments from which we cannot shake ourselves free?
The compositions which make up this book were written by children between ten and eighteen, who were four to twelve when the bomb fell. They were written at the request of Mr. Osada, an older Japanese educator, and the compositions describe a normal hot August morning (the children were playing, eating breakfast, beginning a class at school) which became a world of death. An eleven-year-old girl, five years old at the time, tells us what she felt walking the streets with her parents, looking for a missing relative, shortly after the bomb fell: “The fires were burning. There was a strange smell all over. Blue-green balls of fire were drifting around. I had a terrible lonely feeling that everybody else in the world was dead and only we were still alive.” And from a seventeen-year-old boy:
…the wretched scenes of that time…come floating one after another like phantoms before my eyes…The flames which blaze up here and there from the collapsed houses…The old man, the skin of his face and body peeling off like a potato skin, mumbling prayers while he flees…the faces of monsters reflected from the water dyed red with blood. They had clung to the side of the water tank and plunged their heads in to drink and there in that position they had died. From their burned and tattered middy blouses I could tell that they were high school girls, but there was not a hair left on their heads; the broken skin of their faces was stained bright red with blood. I could hardly believe that these were human faces…
The message could not be clearer. And the same is true in this simple expression of a fifth grade girl, five years old at the time of the bomb:
Since my house was…close to the place where the bomb fell, my mother was turned into white bones before the family altar…Mother is now living in the temple at Nakajima. On the sixth day of every month Grandfather and I go to visit Mother. But no matter how much I try I can’t remember how Mother looked. All I can see is the Memorial Panel standing quietly there…I think Mother can see me. Mother must be so pleased to see how I’ve grown/..When I think that for all those years I haven’t been able to talk to Mother, I feel so sad…When I see the mothers of my classmates I suddenly feel so lonely that I want to cry.
But there are other places where one must read between the lines—as in the common experience of children escaping while their parents died. (“Mother was saying urgently, ‘Mother will come after you, Set-chan, so you get away first. Now quickly, quickly.’ “) Undoubtedly this results in a lacerating sense of guilt because of a tendency in children to feel themselves implicated when parents die and because in this case the parent’s death seems to have taken place for the sake of the child’s own survival.
Of the dread evoked by radiation, we get only fragmentary, but suggestive, indications: “Mother…touched poison and died rather a long time later.” Or: “…still people are dying in a way that reminds us of that day. I can’t think that those people who died are different people from us…” And:
I don’t know whether this is the reason but because of the poison that was in her [Mother’s] body, three or four days before she died brown spots about a quarter or a half an inch diameter appeared all over her body and she became deaf….Then after about two more days on the 9th of September she became a person of another world. After several more days my younger sister died just the way Mother had. And in the latter part of September my other sister died too.
While it is true that most survivors recover from the experience and lead more or less normal lives, large numbers are left with the fear that, having once been exposed to this deadly substance, they might at any moment be struck down with a fatal case of “A-bomb disease,” the term for any condition thought to have been caused by radiation—especially frightening because of the abnormally high rate among survivors of leukemia, particularly between 1950 and 1952.
There are suggestions too of a less tangible loss of faith in reality, which I also found among adult survivors (“But my dad is a strong, splendid person—you can’t get him with any old thing like an A-bomb…Because he had a bad dose of poison, he died after all, about noon on the 16th”). They were also aware that, except for members of the same immediate family, people did little to help one another when the bomb fell. One of the most powerful passages in the book occurs in the composition of a girl who was eleven at the time of the bomb, and who heard her mother’s cries from under the debris of their house: “Mother’s voice died away. I didn’t feel especially sad and I don’t even think that I wanted to get her out. I just stood stupidly there in a daze. looking at the underside of the roof.”
This loss of feeling is also related, in older children, to the idea that they had been victims of a horrible experiment (“Hiroshima was being saved as some kind of testing ground”). This attitude comes up again in connection with American-sponsored studies of the long-range physical effects of radiation and it is encouraged by anti-American groups. But ultimately these attitudes derive from their awareness that they were the first people to experience nuclear weapons and, in that sense, historical guinea pigs. It is significant that the same boy who spoke of Hiroshima as a “testing ground” also said, “I think it would have been a good thing if, in the course of this war, atom bombs had fallen on every country and the people of all those countries had experienced the atom bomb.” I found this fury among adult survivors, too, but somewhat lessened by the Japanese tendency to dampen hostility, and by time itself.
Clearly, the children have much to tell us—even if the book is marred by occasionally awkward translation, by an unfortunate jacket which includes not only Japanese characters but even a rising sun, and more important, by the lack of background material. But these are small matters. The book is an extraordinary document, and however its readers may try to fend it off, something is bound to get through. And this might be of great help to us.