clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

WHO WILL SPEAK FOR BOMB SURVIVORS?

On a hot August morning half a century ago, 20-year-old Kimie Misuhata had just stepped off a streetcar in front of the post office where she worked when the atomic bomb exploded a mile away.

On another steamy summer day this week she apologized to a visitor for wearing short sleeves - because they expose the twists and streaks of scar tissue on her arm from radiation burns."Of course, if the bomb was never dropped I wouldn't look like this," she said, pointing to her disfigured arm. "But if it wasn't dropped, lots more people would have died."

Misuhata, now 70, is one of the 300,000 "hibakusha" - literally, "bomb-affected people" - who lived to tell of Aug. 6, 1945, when Hiroshima became the world's first city to suffer an atomic attack.

Fifty years later, even those who were young at the time of the attack are growing frail. Some survivors are beginning to wonder who will speak for them when they are gone.

Officially, Japan tends to portray itself as a victim and not an aggressor in World War II. But bomb survivors are among the loudest voices calling for the government to acknowledge invasions of neighboring countries as a mistake.

"What happened to us in Hiroshima and to the countries Japan invaded was clearly the fault and responsibility of our government," said bomb survivor Hiroshi Hara, 63. "It's outrageous that the Diet (parliament) doesn't see that, and can't apologize."

The average age of survivors is 66. Many, especially older ones, were brought up to believe that the war was an honorable endeavor, carried out in the emperor's sacred name.

Survivor Tazu Shibama, 89, who lives in a Hiroshima nursing home, is reluctant to broach the topic of why Japan went to war or who was responsible.

"I still respect the emperor," she says.

The government has taken on the task of caring for survivors of the bomb. Benefits include nursing home care and medical checkups. When they die, their families are reimbursed for funeral expenses.

But special relief measures did not begin until 1953 - eight years after the bombing - and many suffered extreme privation in the years after the war.

Many bomb survivors also live in terror that children conceived after the bombing would be born with deformities. But researchers have concluded that the bomb has not caused genetic defects among the second generation - at least so far.

Some researchers still speculate that increased cancer rates could show up once the second generation is over age 50.

And prejudices linger. In Japan, where it is common for families to have detectives investigate the past of a prospective mate, the presence of a "hibakusha" in the family tree can sour a potential match.

Cancer and leukemia rates are higher among atomic bomb survivors than the general population - but not by much.

"I tell my patients that cigarette smokers have a worse chance of getting cancer than people who were exposed to the bomb's radiation," said Nobuhiro Ohta, head doctor at the clinic for survivors at the Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital.

Most of the bomb-related injuries the clinic treats now, Ohta says, are extractions of glass and other materials that were lodged in people's bodies 50 years ago by the force of the explosion. The fragments went unnoticed until the aging process made skin hang looser.