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Book Review: Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War – Susan Southard

Ford, G. (2017). “Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War” by Susan Southard, Asian Review of Books, 6 January.

In 1946, John Hersey published the first account of the horrors that awaited those unlucky enough to survive the bomb in his short Hiroshima. Seventy years on, Susan Southard has done the same for Nagasaki. She interleaves the nightmares visited on five young victims (hibakusha) within the broader context of Japanese totalitarianism, the decision to drop the bomb, Washington’s censorship and denial of its after effects, the fight against discrimination and for medical aid for the hibakusha, and finally their campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.

Japan’s Emperor cult sucked the opposition dry. The neighborhood groups (tonarigumi) of five to ten households policed obedience, the schools inculcated the slogans, “One hundred million [people], one mind” and the emperor and empress looked down malignly from the walls of every home. Yet by the summer of 1945 “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”, as the Emperor coyly put it in his radio address announcing Japan’s surrender.

Peace feelers had been put out weeks before Hiroshima and Nagasaki via the Soviet Union with Japan on the verge of surrender, but Tokyo was unaware of Moscow’s engagement at Yalta to join the war against in the Far East on 9 August. While the bombing of Hiroshima may have played some role in the decision to surrender, Nagasaki didn’t. The decisive factor was the Communist threat, and the subsequent choice: better Washington than Moscow.

The two bombs killed 200,000 and maimed 200,000. Death rippled out from the hypocenters in circles of hell. Initial survival anywhere close to the blast was to suffer first degree burns from the flash with skin sloughing off in sheets exposing the underlying flesh and bone, then to stagger, crawl and writhe in the direction of medical assistance that wasn’t there. To discover that most—if not all—of your family had perished and then a week or month later to be hit by radiation sickness where the hair fell out, burns and wounds secreted vast quantities of pus and gums swelled, became infected and bled.

Survival was a lottery where for many losing was to live. A daily task was to pick out the crawling maggots from the wounds. Taniguchi Sumiteru—one of Southward’s kataribe (storytellers)—lay on his stomach for more than a year with infected bedsores burrowing deep into his chest. It was 1947 before he was able to sit up.

Early on none of this was known to the public. American censorship in Japan was so tight that it was an offence even to report the fact of censorship.

It was the classic sequence of there weren’t any, weren’t many and it was their fault. Manhattan Project Director General Leslie Groves initially dismissed reports of radiation-related deaths as Japanese propaganda saying “If this is true, the number was very small,” then told the US Senate that death from high-dose radiation exposure is “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die”; and finally concluding

The atomic bomb is not an inhuman weapon. I think our best answer to anyone that doubts this is that we did not start the war, and if they don’t like the way we ended it, to remember who started it.

For the bulk of the American public the justification was an acceptable mix of retribution, racism and relief.

The US Military used the hibakusha as unwitting guinea pigs to assess the impact of the bomb and design to make them better. As early as 1946, Washington saw the opportunity to conduct long term scientific and medical research that the Army Medical Corps believed “may not again be offered until another world war.”

The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was established. It rounded up the victims for medical examination, but not medical care. Their injuries were photographed, blood and semen samples were taken and they were returned home. It was not until 1957, five years after the US occupation ended, that the Japanese Government passed the Atomic Bomb Victims Medical Care Law to provide funds for semiannual medical examinations for the Japanese hibakusha. It was not until 1978 that the 10-12,000 Korean forced labor survivors of Nagasaki became eligible for help, and then under conditions that were designed to be all but impossible to meet.

Survivors were shunned. Disfigured, diseased and dangerous, they struggled to find employment, spouses or have their voices heard. Many denied themselves to avoid the bigotry. But as the years passed, courageous individuals came out of their homes, out of the shadows, banded together and spoke out first for their rights, then for an end to nuclear weapons.

These living witnesses have over the last forty years and more carried this message far and wide. Some are still not listening. An attempt to put together an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum featuring the Enola Gay—the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima—alongside panels depicting the effects on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was abandoned in 1995, in the face of ferocious resistance from those reluctant to have the conventional wisdom challenged that the bombs saved a million American lives and ended the War in the Pacific.

Susan Southward has done a marvelous job humanizing the inhuman with her five suffering subjects. Yet where do we go from here? There is no optimistic ending. Already two of her five kataribe are dead. They helped add Nagasaki to the cities and places on the world tour of terror alongside Nanjing and Auschwitz, Armenia and Burundi, but there is little evidence that the world is any closer to becoming nuclear free.

In December 2014, there were 16,300 nuclear warheads in the world with 94% belonging to Washington and Moscow.