A Moment for the Women of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Kikuko Otake, an atomic bomb survivor who was 5 years old when “Little Boy” exploded over her hometown of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. (Photo by Sheila Burt)

“There was a blinding flashing light and a roar of thunder sounded. And the big pillar of fire stood up into the sky.”

Kikuko Otake raises her arms to mimic the explosion of the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” over her hometown of Hiroshima.

As she describes the events that unraveled 73 years ago on August 6th, myself and dozens of other guests sit in silence at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles on an April afternoon.

Otake was five years old when the bomb exploded about a mile from her home. The shockwave from the blast caused her house to crash over her family, sending shattered glass and crumbling beams flying. Somehow, even with a gashed elbow and pieces of glass penetrating her skin, her mother freed herself from the wreckage.

“She saw my little brother and I were buried up to the chest but luckily our heads were sticking out of the debris,” Otake recalled. “So my mother crawled over the broken roof tiles and pulled my little brother and me out of the rubble.”

Fires rapidly spread around the city and later, a radioactive black rain fell, turning the cloudless summer sky to night.

They spent the next few days in a daze, searching for their father, a private in the Japanese army who was stationed near the hypocenter and never seen alive again. Otake’s memories of that day are few, but she remembers seeing her uncle and other burn victims walking with their arms raised like zombies as melting skin dangled from their arms.

“His hair was gone…and his entire body was red with burns,” she said of her uncle. “From his fingertips, slipped off skin hung down like latex gloves.” He died later that day, along with her cousin who was outside near their house at the time of the blast. By chance, Otake and her family at home were spared because they had been inside and could free themselves from the debris.

On August 9th, three days after the Hiroshima bombing, a similar hell unfolded in Nagasaki, a city south of Hiroshima on Kyushu Island.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum estimates that about 350,000 people were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. By the end of the year, an estimated 140,000 people died. In Nagasaki, which had a population of about 240,000, more than 70,000 people perished. Most of the deaths were of civilians in both cities, and among the dead or injured included at least 45,000 Koreans who were interned as factory workers and more than a dozen Allied POWs.

In American history classrooms, we read about the atomic bombings, sometimes debating their role in ending the war and learning about the scientific origins of nuclear technology. Rarely, however, do we take time to understand the hardship survivors experienced for decades and the enduring relevance of their collective efforts for peace.

In the aftermath of the bombings, men, women, and children treaded through fires and witnessed unspeakable human suffering. The Ota River in Hiroshima was filled with one of the most haunting scenes of burned victims who yearned for water and drowned.

Hiroshima Genbaku Dome and paper lanterns in the Ota River honoring the dead. (Photo by Sheila Burt)

In both cities, women endured distinct hardships: some who were pregnant at the time of the blast and near the hypocenter miscarried, or gave birth to stillborn children or babies with microcephaly, a birth defect that causes the brain to improperly develop. Scientists later connected this condition and certain cancers to high radiation exposure. Even now, research continues at institutes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to understand the long-term health effects of radiation exposure on survivors.

Other survivors were disfigured so badly with scars and physical impairments that they feared discrimination as false rumors spread that radiation sickness was contagious. A group of these women, the “Hiroshima Maidens,” later traveled to New York to receive reconstructive surgery and became a potent symbol of the bomb’s horrors.

“Atomic bomb survivors are suffering from the most severe case of PTSD because nobody wanted to talk about it,” Otake said.

Today, the average age of the survivors is over 82 and chances to hear their stories in person dwindle. Yet many surviving men and women like Otake remain vocal opponents of nuclear weapons and travel to tell their stories. Women like Setsuko Thurlow, a leading activist with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) whose poignant efforts and stirring speeches helped the group win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, Koko Tanimoto Kondo, an educator and activist who continues her father’s work of bridging peace relations, Keiko Ogura, who in May traveled from Japan to speak to university students in Boston, and countless others.

In an emotional speech to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN, Thurlow paid tribute to those who died in Nagasaki and her hometown of Hiroshima, as well as to civilians around the world whose lives have been impacted by nuclear testing. “People from places with long-forgotten names, like Moruroa, Ekker, Semipalatinsk, Maralinga, Bikini,” she said. “People whose lands and seas were irradiated, whose bodies were experimented upon, whose cultures were forever disrupted. We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.”

Stockpile of nuclear weapons display at Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum — circa 2013 (Photo by Sheila Burt)

ICAN’s efforts were instrumental in the United Nations July 2017 adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibits the development, testing, producing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. While 122 nations — representing about two-thirds of the UN membership — adopted the treaty, none of the nine countries with nuclear weapons endorsed or participated in the negotiation. ICAN estimates that together these nine countries possess around 15,000 nuclear weapons.

In understanding the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and the threats their development and testing pose, the voices of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors remain as vital as ever.

Nagasaki Peace Park (Photo by Sheila Burt)

Although many survivors now share their stories, in the years after the bombing many found it too difficult to speak and worried they would face discrimination when seeking employment or deciding to get married. In Otake’s case, her mother never spoke openly about her experience. She instead focused on raising her three children as a single parent and instilled in them the value of education. But every August 6, on the anniversary of the bombing, she sat in silence in front of the family’s altar.

Otake moved to the United States in the late 1960s and became an assistant professor of Japanese, settling in southern California where she still lives. Other survivors she met encouraged her to share her story. So when her mother was in her 70s, she interviewed her and wrote a book of prose and poetry, “Masako’s Story,” in tribute to her and to record her memories. She hopes that this story helps explain life after the bomb to an English-speaking audience.

“No more Hiroshima. No more Nagasaki. No more hibakusha,” Otake told us, using the Japanese word for atomic bomb survivor. “Please, no more war.”

Display at Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum on nuclear tests (Photo by Sheila Burt)

Despite her hopes for the future, Otake, who is 78, shudders at the thought that current nuclear weapons are thousands of times more powerful than the ones dropped in Japan. To her and other survivors, moving forward does not come in the form of vindication or hateful rhetoric. Instead, they call for an open dialogue about how we can live in a world free of nuclear weapons. They also raise awareness about other civilians inflicted by radiation exposure — from Chernobyl to Fukushima — and nuclear weapons testing.

Otake ended her speech with the image of a crane, a universal symbol of peace made famous by Sadako, a 12-year-old who died of radiation-induced leukemia about ten years after the bombing. Her closing words reverberated across the room in a way no textbook could offer: “There is no other way of surviving but peace. Peace begins with us. Let there be peace.”

Cranes at Hiroshima Peace Park (Photo by Sheila Burt)

Ms. Kikuko Otake spoke at the Rotary Community Peace Conference organized by The Rotary Club of Little Tokyo Los Angeles in April 2018.

Sheila Burt is a writer based in Chicago. She is a former teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program and a 2012 participant of the “Hiroshima and Peace” program at Hiroshima City University.