Japan History Lab

Survivors of Hiroshima: The Experience and Effects of the Atomic Bomb

By Ariel Merriam


“I don’t like to use the word ‘hell’,” wrote Ōta Yōko in late 1945, reflecting on the sight of corpses piled up at the entrance of a Hiroshima hospital that August 6th. “That would use up my vocabulary of horror; but there was no way to describe this scene other than as the wrath of hell” (205).1 Indeed, survivors and historians alike have struggled to encapsulate in words precisely what happened in Hiroshima that morning, when more than 110,000 civilians were killed and countless more were injured by the American nuclear bomb that destroyed the city (222).2 Intense historical debates have attempted to assert precisely why the bomb was dropped, and assess its role in ending the war and establishing the postwar order. However, despite the importance of such political and military questions, it would do a disservice to the survivors of Hiroshima to fail to account for the immense and lasting impact of the nuclear bomb on the lives of its victims. To assess the full extent of this impact, it is important to examine the experience and immediate consequences of the attack for individuals and infrastructure, the long-term effects of injury, radiation, and trauma, and government and societal responses to survivors.

Map of Hiroshima Prefecture drawn by the U.S. Army Map Service showing the scope of damage done by the atomic bomb.

Map of Hiroshima Prefecture drawn by the U.S. Army Map Service showing the scope of damage done by the atomic bomb3.

Although this paper focuses on the human experience of Hiroshima, political and military context are important to a full understanding of the impact and consequences of the atomic bomb. Since the end of the war, historians have attempted to assert why the Americans dropped the bomb and determine its role in Japan’s surrender and the establishment of the postwar world. One main argument posits that the United States bombed Hiroshima in order to end the Pacific War before a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home islands, which would have caused greater losses of life and resources, became necessary (13).4 Indeed, the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th was pivotal to the sequence of events that ended the war, followed by the similarly devastating nuclear attack against Nagasaki on August 9th and culminating in Japan’s offer of unconditional surrender to the United States on August 10th (4-5).4 However, many historians also argue that the United States had another motivation for dropping the bomb: to display their power in order to provoke and intimidate the USSR (13).4 This argument indicates that the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima was not only crucial in ending the war, but was central to the establishment of a power struggle between the United States and the USSR as a defining feature of the postwar order. These political and military arguments therefore make it clear that the bombing of Hiroshima occupied a central place in both the end of the Pacific War and the formation of the postwar world, which would have important consequences for later treatment of its survivors.

Video reel shot in Hiroshima by the U.S. Air Force in the Spring of 1946, documenting life in the city's ruins.5

Such political and military perspectives on the bombing are valuable, but give no sense of what it was like to be in Hiroshima on that day. For an account of the human experience of the bombing, it becomes necessary to turn to firsthand survivor accounts, which are dominated by confusion, shock, horror, and helplessness. This may in part be a result of the fact that until the morning of August 6th, daily life in Hiroshima had carried on with the semblance of normalcy throughout the war. The city had not endured bombing like other areas of Japan, and residents believed that the Americans would continue to spare them (341).2 In addition, on the morning of August 6th, residents of Hiroshima had already been awoken twice by air raid sirens, false alarms that made altering daily schedules to take shelter seem unnecessary (195).2 Hiroshi Shibayama, who was twenty years old and on his way to work at the time of the attack, speaks to this sentiment, recalling that sirens in the morning were a normal occurrence, and that he “did not take much notice of it” (97).6 Even the first impact of the bomb did not convince him of the imminent danger, and he was instead fascinated by the beauty of the multi-coloured pillar of cloud rising into the sky. It was not until he saw the destruction caused by the explosion that he understood what had happened. Survivor accounts of the minutes and hours that followed the impact are dominated by an overwhelming sense of shock and horror. Those able to walk wandered the streets numbly, looking for lost relatives or roaming aimlessly like sleepwalkers. They were horrified and embarrassed by the immodest sight of people whose clothing had been burnt away in the blast, and felt shame at their inability to help those who lay injured in the streets (202).2 Human losses were beyond description or imagination, with nearly 85% of families losing at least one member and some being wiped out entirely (370).7 Ōta Yōko was not the only survivor to use the metaphor of hell to attempt to describe scenes of collapsed buildings, fire, and severely disfigured victims. Teiichi Teramura and Nakaichi Nakamura both describe the streets of Hiroshima as “hell on earth” (40, 49),89 while Shibayama and Katsuyoshi Yoshimura compare these sights to “scenes from a medieval painting of hell”(78, 99).610 The scope of tragedy experienced in Hiroshima is almost impossible to encapsulate in words, and our best attempts at understanding it come from the scenes of horror, shock, confusion, and helplessness described in survivor testimonies.

Aerial view of Hiroshima taken by the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey in April 1945.

Aerial view of Hiroshima taken by the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey in April 1945.11.

Aerial view of Hiroshima taken by the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey on 8 August 1945, two days after the bombing.

Aerial view of Hiroshima taken by the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey on 8 August 1945, two days after the bombing.12.

In addition to examining firsthand survivor experience, it is important to look at the disastrous impact of the bomb on infrastructure, which contributed to the disintegration of individual lives, communities, and the bonds of society in Hiroshima. All structures within a two-kilometer radius of the bomb’s epicentre were destroyed, and only 8% of the city’s total buildings remained in usable condition (344).7 For individuals, this meant the loss of property and assets that had ensured their livelihood and stability (384-5).7 It also dealt incapacitating damage to important administrative organizations and facilities, including city hall, refugee shelters, fire departments, police stations, and networks of communication and transportation (379).7 Only 3 of the 45 hospitals in Hiroshima were able to accept injured patients, and 90% or more of doctors and nurses were killed or injured in the attack (198).2 This unprecedented destruction of life and infrastructure meant that Hiroshima experienced a “total loss of its central functions,” and was incapable of providing relief to survivors (379).7 Nearby towns and villages to which refugees from Hiroshima fled found themselves quickly overwhelmed by the needs of injured survivors, and could do little to help (524).7 Damage to the infrastructure of Hiroshima therefore destroyed personal assets and communities, which inhibited relief and delayed recovery from the attack.

Photo taken by a U.S. Navy Photographer depicting the conditions of victims of the bomb living in the ruins of Hiroshima.

Photo taken by a U.S. Navy Photographer depicting the conditions of victims of the bomb living in the ruins of Hiroshima.13.

The consequences of the bomb continued to plague survivors for as long as they lived. Those who had sustained injuries were left with painful physical wounds and scars that often rendered them severely disabled and unable to work, and which served as constant reminders of their traumatic experience (489).7 Furthermore, the appearance of radiation sickness heightened anxieties about death when, months or even decades after the attack, seemingly healthy survivors suddenly became extremely ill (489).7 For many, anxieties about illness and death only intensified as time passed and the consequences of the bomb continued to manifest. Between 1965 and 1971, mortality from leukemia was found to be seven to eight times greater among victims of Hiroshima than other Japanese citizens as a result of exposure to radiation (222).2 In addition, the physical consequences of the attack were not only long-lasting but also intergenerational. Mothers who had been pregnant during the bombing gave birth to children with severe developmental and physical disabilities, later found to have been caused by irradiation of the fetus (449).7 Even children conceived and born years or decades after the event were not exempt from such consequences. The endurance and continuing emergence of disfigurement, injuries, and illnesses related to the atomic bomb in the years that followed therefore provoked intense and pervasive anxieties and psychological trauma among survivors, who continued to suffer the consequences of the bomb long after 1945.

Exacerbating the difficulties faced by survivors of Hiroshima were government inaction and social stigma, which endured for decades after the attack. In the period of American occupation following Japan’s surrender, information about the bombing was heavily censored and survivor testimonies, images, and reports from journalists were forbidden (29).14 This initial censorship had several consequences. First, victims were unable to express their grief and find solidarity with others in a way that could be cathartic and facilitate healing (227).2 Censorship also prohibited medical researchers working with survivors from sharing their findings, thereby stunting efforts to treat the medical conditions of victims (127).15 In 1952, when the American occupation ended, survivors began sharing their experiences of the attack through artistic renderings and written testimonials, and the Japanese government began extending some aid to victims (129).15 However, this aid was dependent on local resources, which had often been decimated during the war, and it failed to adequately meet the needs of survivors continuing to suffer from illness, injury, and poverty (126).15 Furthermore, broader attitudes toward victims of the attack were marked by stigma, which alienated them from normal life and inclusion in Japanese society. Machiyo Kurokawa recalls being rejected from lodgings at a Tokyo school after revealing that she was from Hiroshima, and was asked not to return to a bathhouse because of her scars (95).16 Kayoko Satomi remembers that her older sister, who sustained heavy injuries during the attack, was subjected to relentless taunting from other children and rude comments from adults (173).17 For many Japanese people, survivors of the bombing, particularly those with distinguishable physical injuries, were a reminder of a difficult wartime past that had culminated in the use of the atomic bombs and Japan’s humiliating surrender (128).15 These survivors, termed the hibakusha, and the past they represented, were unwelcome in the new postwar Japan. As a result of censorship, government inaction, and stigma, survivors of the bomb suffered mental and physical trauma without aid, and often lived in poverty and alienation from Japanese society long after the attack.

Despite these challenges, many survivors discovered methods of healing, finding meaning in their experience and feeling a responsibility to advocate for the needs of survivors and warn against the dangers of nuclear technology. Ōta Yōko recalls writing her memoir immediately after the bombing, while living in constant fear of radiation sickness and death, and states that even then she felt the “responsibility of getting the story written down” (147).1 This sense of responsibility is clear in the memoirs and testimonies of many survivors, who came to see themselves as a “chosen people” with a mission of awareness raising and advocacy (500).7 This process, in which the horrors of the atomic bomb could be mobilized into a powerful message of peace and hope, provided many survivors with a sense of purpose and meaning, and helped them reconceive a sense of order in their lives (67).14 It also had a tangible effect on government policy. In 1954, survivor demands led the government to pass the A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law, which provided regular healthcare and treatment to survivors (544).7 In 1968, campaigns for a relief law yielded the A-bomb Victims Special Measures Law, under which victims could qualify for aid and special allowances (557).7 Yet, despite these gains, survivors often still lived in poverty, and those who expressed grief and rage rather than conforming to the discourse of transformation, peace, and hope, were silenced and shunned (69).14 Even so, the emotional mobilization of survivors shows the ways in which some found meaning and stability in their lives by transforming their horrific experience into a powerful message of peace and activism.

The impact of the bombing of Hiroshima on its survivors was entirely life-altering, with immense, long-lasting effects on physical and mental well-being, economic stability, and social status. Throughout their lives, many survivors were traumatized, impoverished, and plagued with bomb-related injuries, illnesses, and anxieties. These woes were exacerbated by the destruction of Hiroshima’s infrastructure, and by government inaction and social stigma, all of which contributed to the alienation of atomic bomb victims from Japanese society. Yet, despite these difficulties, some survivors found meaning in their experience and transformed it into a powerful tool of education and advocacy. Today, Hiroshima occupies an important place in Japanese national memory as a defining trauma central to the formation of postwar Japanese identity and shared by all Japanese citizens, complete with a nationwide commemorative infrastructure (193).18 Therefore, although Hiroshima’s legacy has most often been studied in terms of its political and military implications and consequences, its widespread and long-term effects on those who survived the attack cannot be ignored. In order to come to a full understanding of the meaning of Hiroshima, it is necessary to take human experience into account and to treat it with seriousness and respect.