70 years ago last week, the atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hibakusha—the “exposed” in Japanese—have overcome social stigma to speak out and tell their story. The average age of the atomic bomb survivors is over 80 years old, and while many may still be alive for the 75th and 80th anniversary, there’s a sense of urgency to document the words of these survivors now. As part of my Fulbright fellowship with National Geographic, I visited both cities on these landmark anniversaries, and spoke with over 20 hibakusha. Four shared their voices.
Photos by Ari Beser
Kazuhiko Futagawa, 69, was exposed to the atomic bomb in his mother’s womb. Here he stands in front of the blouse of the sister he never knew. On August 6, 1945, his father and his sister were working in the center of the city. His father was a postal worker located almost directly under the hypocenter, the center of the blast radius, and he believes he was instantly vaporized. His mother died 15 years ago, but 2 years ago he found this blouse hidden deep in her belongings. It was perfectly preserved. He choked up as he tried to convey the pain his mother must have felt over the daughter she could not save.
Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO Cruise ship partaking in Global Voyages docked in the port of Nagasaki. As part of a shorter East Asian Cruise, the boat visited Korea and Russia as well, but it was the first time the ship docked in Nagasaki. On Board was Hiroshima survivor Shigeko Sasamori, 83, one of the Hiroshima Maidens. In 1955, 25 young women were brought to America to receive reconstructive surgery to repair the scars caused by the Atomic Bombs. She admitted to me the Maidens might have started by chance. She was raised a buddhist, and one day she passed by the methodist church led by Reverend Tanimoto. She heard a beautiful melody coming from the church, so she went inside. Tanimoto introduced himself, and asked her if she knew other girls like herself, if they wanted to come and form a support group. This support group eventually gained the attention of Norman Cousins, the man who would raise the money to bring them to America.
Sakue Shimohira, 80, was ten years old at the time of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Her struggle, like many of the survivors, did not end with the dropping of the bombs. When she was 15, and her sister was 13, they were starving, they had no money, and her sisters wounds were infected. She couldn’t take it so she jumped in front of a train. Shimohira-san chose life. “You need to have a courage to die, and a courage to live,” she admitted, ” My sister chose the courage to die, but I chose the courage to live.”
Sumiteru Taniguchi, 86, was riding his bicycle delivering mail when the plutonium bomb exploded over the Urakami valley. His back arms and legs were practically burned off, and he was left for dead. He was taken to the naval hospital in Ohmura, and had to lay on his stomach for nearly two years, sustaining bed sores so bad that to this day you can see the bones of his rib cage. He has no explanation for his survival, other than divine intervention. He works tirelessly to forward his message, though his condition is weakening. This year, he traveled to New York City for the review of the Non Proliferation Treaty, but shortly after returning to Japan he fell sick. Still, he decided to speak at this years Peace Ceremony in Nagasaki. He criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abes Security reforms, and warned that Japan may soon be on the path to war. He further pledged that he, “will continue to convey the truth of the war and atomic bombing throughout the world for as long as I live.”
55,000 people came to offer a prayer and their respects to the dead on August 6, 2015. Thousands waited in line at the cenotaph, the monument that holds the registry of the dead. Every year more names are added to the list as it is believed the ionizing radiation that the Hibakusha were exposed to is still killing them. Over 200,000 names have been added as of this year. Kazumi Matsui The Mayor of Hiroshima, offered his annual peace declaration. “The city of Hiroshima will work even harder to preserve the facts of the bombing, disseminate them to the world and convey them to coming generations.”
Every year on the Anniversary night 80,000 lanterns are lit and floated down the river. Survivors often speak of the river being so full of dead bodies you couldn’t even see the water. Their story is a stark contrast to the beauty of the colored lanterns.
This year Paper Crane Lanterns were added to the Toro Nagashi Ceremony. Paper Cranes, or Orizuru in Japanese, have a mythical meaning. A legend says if you fold 1,000 paper cranes you receive a wish. Orizuru are often associated with Hiroshima because of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who died trying to fulfill this wish.
On August 8th, the night before the Anniversary of Nagasaki, The Peace Memorial Park was filled with candles in a vigil to honor the 74,000 killed by the first plutonium bomb used on a populated city. The lanterns led to the top of the mountain, where “The Light of Peace Concert” was held the night before the Anniversary.
Nagasaki’s Mayor Tomihisa Taue and others offer water to the souls of the victims at the base of the Peace Statue. The Statue’s right hand is pointing up at the threat of Nuclear Weapons. His left is extended outward calling for Peace. His eyes are closed in prayer, and one foot is getting ready to stand up as a call to action.
Mayor Taue joined Peace Boat in the evening of the 9th to reiterate his powerful Peace Declaration he made earlier that day. Interrupted only by applause he pledged, “The conviction that nuclear weapons must not exist, and that we must never go to war again, was deeply and powerfully engraved upon the hearts of the Hibakusha, who know firsthand the fears destructive force of atomic bombs. The peaceful ideology of the Constitution of Japan was born from these painful and harsh experiences, and from reflection upon the war. Since the war, our country has walked the path of a Peaceful nation. For the sake of Nagasaki and for the sake of all of Japan, we must never change the peaceful principle that we renounce war.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.