Content warning: this post includes graphic descriptions of the effects of the nuclear bomb dropped in Hiroshima that may be traumatic for some readers. We feel it is important to read these stories in order to capture the real human impact of nuclear weapons.
Just as the huge issue of gun violence and the initiation of recent student led advocacy from Parkland, Florida to Washington DC brings hope for positive change in this country, so too have students in Japan addressed the issue of nuclear disarmament in their country. Since the detonation of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors of that dreadful experience, known as Hibakusha, have been applauded as truth tellers and yet discriminated by the general population as poor choices for marriage, likely to bear deformed children, and unlikely to hold responsible jobs because of medical problems. The youth recognized that many of the Hibakusha have withheld telling their stories for these reasons and, as they age, are passing on without their true experiences coming to light.
The following edited story is taken from a book compiled by Soka Gakkai, a Japanese organization dedicated to Disarmament Education. This was an effort by those Japanese youth who wanted to capture those stories of the Hibakusha. The youth initiated an appeal to them directly to share what really happened. These stories were compiled by the Youth Division of Soka Gakkai, released in book form in 2017: Hiroshima and Nagasaki: That we Never Forget, and published by Daisanbunmei-sha in Tokyo. A young woman just 13 years old at the time of the bombing in Hiroshima, Miyoko Matsubara shared this story at the age of 85.
I Join with the Youth to Appeal for Abolition
By Miyoko Matsubara
Shocked to see my face in the mirror
When I opened the dresser to see my face for the first time I was shocked speechless. Even in the dusk, what I saw resembled a red demon’s face, swollen, red and covered with stiffly twisted skin, rather than my own face. The skin around my eyes was disfigured like an overripe tomato, and my eyebrows were gone.
“Is that…me?” Despair overwhelmed me. Tears flowed without end.
Though my whole body had suffered deep burns, others had rescued and somehow gotten me home that day. As I recovered, I worried increasingly about my face and begged my mother to bring me a mirror. She refused, and the deep burns prevented me from walking. But one day, I crawled to the dresser.
“If you’d given me better treatment, I wouldn’t have ended up like this!” With no other place to vent my rage and grief, I would lash out at my mother.
“If only it had happened to me, not you!” she grieved.
Whenever I cried over my misfortune, she wept by my side. “You’d have been better off dying.”
Only later did I learn that while I hovered at death’s doorstep, my mother took her kimonos to the countryside to sell in order to pay for my treatment. When I learned that she had sold her previous kimonos, I vowed, “I’ll never cry in front of Mother again!”
When my seven months of treatment at home ended, I returned to school. Of roughly 250 classmates, fewer than 50 had come back.
Eyes welling with tears, my friend told me to flee
That day, August 6, 1945, we first-year students at Hiroshima Girls Commercial School had gone to clean up debris from building demolition at Tsurumicho, [which had previously been bombed] 1.5 kilometers [.93, miles] from the hypocenter. About 500 first and second year students and 11 teachers had gathered at our meeting place at the foot of Hijiyama Bridge. It was a refreshing morning under a clear, cloudless sky.
Our school divided into teams of four to pick up broken roof tiles, fragments of wood, nails, etc., and drop these into wire containers or baskets. We called out, “Yo-sha! Yo-sha! (Heave –ho!)” as we worked.
Just then, my friend Miss Funaoka shouted, “I hear B-29s!”
The earlier yellow alert had been canceled, so I thought she must be wrong, but I looked up anyway. In front of a white contrail I could barely make out the wings of a B-29. I was looking carefully at the plane when, seemingly from the tail appeared an enormous orange and bluish white flash. I dove to the ground as a huge roar sounded all around me. I thought I had been targeted.
I don’t know how much time passed, but when I came to and looked around the world was darkened by clouds of dirt and dust. I could see nothing. Where was Miss Funaoka, who had been near me, and other members of my team? Had they been thrown elsewhere?
From the ground up, the air gradually cleared. I looked at my body and was astonished. Having been told that white clothing would stand out to the enemy pilots, we had dyed my white top and work pants dusky purple. The heat ray had virtually burnt this dark cloth away. Only rags of fabric, over my chest and bottom remained. My white canvas shoes remained on my feet, but burns had swollen my insteps – they were about to burst out. The unbearable pain forced me to take off my shoes. From then on, I was shoeless.
Checking my body more closely, I saw that both hands, my arms, legs and face were terribly burnt. The swollen red skin peeled off, glossy like cellophane, leaving blood-red-flesh beneath. The skin of my fingers and arms hung like rags and was turning yellow as blood seeped through it.
Maybe because I had sheltered my face from the flash with my right hand, it was especially burnt. Terrified, I began to run away in the dark, stubbing my feet on rubble, falling down. The way in front cleared enough that I made it to the bridge.
A crowd of the injured huddled at the foot of the bridge. Most were nearly naked because the heat ray had burned off their clothes. Blood flowed from charred black skin. Some corpses were burnt completely black, with only white teeth distinguishable from the rest.
In the river, which was smothered in something like black smoke or mist, a great many people raised their voices together, like an incantation. This resounded in my ears like the roar of the sea. The raging heat of my body drove me into the river, just like the others I saw. “Aren’t you Miss Matsubara?” I looked at the person who had called out, but severe burns had swollen her jaw and neck into each other, so disfiguring my classmate Mit-chan that only her voice told me who she was. The river was full of people like her and me, people burnt beyond recognition.
At this point, reason returned. I understood that the bomb had not just targeted me, but everyone. About that time, flames were leaping from the way we had just come, chasing us. Mit-chan and I got out of the river on the opposite side, crawled up the bank and found a road.
People staggered around like sleepwalkers. Torn streetcar cables had tumbled onto the road along with collapsed electric poles. People’s heads were plunged into fire cisterns, where they must have died seeking water to drink. People immobilized by injury were slumped over everywhere.
When we got to Koji Bridge, Mit-chan gazed at her, her eyes flooding with tears. “This is it for me. Go on by yourself!” She collapsed on the ground.
I wanted to carry her on my back to a rescue station but I was so exhausted, I was on the verge of falling down myself. I left in remorseful silence. Three days later, her parents found her and took her home, but she died soon thereafter. Even now, when I think about Mit-chan, I feel my heart will break.
I made it through the Dambara shopping area, picking my way over the road strewn with shards of glass from shattered shop doors and windows. I collapsed from pain under the eaves of a house. My aunt found me there and brought me home. Fever and pain ravaged my near death body. I lost half my hair and often lost consciousness.
Daily my family carried me by stretcher to the rescue station at the Oko Elementary School for treatment of the burns covering my entire body.
The doctors warned that staying in bed with my legs straight would cause my burnt and scarred knees to heal without the ability to bend. They forcibly bent my knee joints, which tore off the scabs and sent blood spurting out. The pain was terrible; I wanted to scream “Just kill me!”
In time Mijoko faced the terrible prejudice of a survivor: lack of a marriage prospect, fear of having a deformed child, concerns of weakness and deformities making her ineligible for work. Her options brightened when she was invited to Osaka for cosmetic surgery. She had 11 operations in seven months.
When incisions around my eyes allowed the lids to close properly, I felt a joy I can’t describe. Until then, my eyes would constantly collect dust and dirt that formed painful lumps as they rolled around my eyeballs.
In time she found meaning in her life when she began employment in an orphanage for children blinded by the bomb.
Helping the children gave me a reason to live. I worked hard as a nurse for children who could not see.
And my thinking about the bombing deepened. I understood that it is people who create wars and atomic bombs, and that unless people abhor war and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, we will make the same mistakes again. I decided to spend my life working to free the world of these weapons.
And she did...