THE 70TH anniversary of the atomic bomb attack may be the last time to make amends to Japan’s hibakusha, writes Martyn McLaughlin
In a year when every other week summons remembrances of bloody battles waged crudely in foreign fields, the anniversary of Hiroshima seems to occupy its own unreal chapter of history – an atrocity so sudden and savage as to be disconnected from the myriad other horrors of the chronology of the 20th century. After millennia of unfulfilled promise, it was the day mankind struck upon the perfect formula of ingenuity and folly with which to birth the means of its own demise.
For post-war generations spared the horror of bearing witness to the moment 70 years ago this Thursday when nightmares breached our reality, Hiroshima is a warning from history articulated by haunting imagery. The potency of the photographs and film reels which captured Little Boy’s blinding flash and its brutal aftermath – rivers that turned black and red under the mass of charred bodies; classrooms full of children incinerated by the fireball’s fury – remain undiminished by repetition. They define our emotional response to the incomprehensible and will forever do so. The living cannot provide as persuasive a testimony as the dead.
Yet as the decades passed and what Japanese christened the shi no hai – the “ashes of death” – came to settle, the shadow of Hiroshima continues to cast a baleful influence over the lives of those who were on the ground on 6 August, 1945 as the Enola Gay passed over the south of Honshu Island with the most monstrous of payloads. They are the hibakusha, the “explosion-affected people”.
With an average age of 80.13, the ranks of this forsaken band are dwindling. According to the Japanese government, only 183,519 remained as of the last count on 31 March this year. It is a population half the number of that registered in the 1980s and it is declining at the rate of more than 8,000 every year.
This weekend will be the last major anniversary for many of them, a time when their homeland might at last repent for the suffering it has conferred upon them. It is an opportunity which, like every other milestone before it, will likely pass unmarked. For all the grave lessons of Hiroshima, the injustice faced by its survivors remains a contemptible injustice waiting to be remedied.
Amid the debate surrounding nuclear proliferation in the wake of the Second World War’s concluding abomination – an argument which continues to rage in this country and further afield – it is instructive to remember how the hibakusha were abandoned in their time of need. It was not until 1954, when the crew of shrimp boat Lucky Dragon were hit by the fallout from the US Bikini Atoll tests, that Japan acknowledged its duty of care towards those affected by atomic warfare.
At a time when Hiroshima’s living victims were forced to turn to relatives to help foot the medical bills for their crippling physical afflictions, it took the death of the Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kubohayama, to shake the government out of its entrenched position of silence and censorship and into action. When the A-Bomb Survivors Relief Law was enacted in 1957, it approved rudimentary treatment and benefits for those caught up in the white heat and black rain a decade before, and promised the beginning of reparations.
In practice, the act’s provisions proved demeaningly inept. Any survivor seeking recognition had to provide incontrovertible proof of their whereabouts in the 2km radius of the bomb’s hypocentre as it struck at 8:16am. They were asked to give eyewitness alibis from loved ones and friends, colleagues and neighbours – the very people they saw die. A legislative instrument ostensibly designed to salve wounds more often than not reopened them.
For those who jumped through the administrative hoops to secure screening and treatment, there were many more who shunned the process for fear of the repercussions they and their families would face. The value of the care was outweighed by the stigma that came with being recognised as a hibakusha. Men and women were shunned by prospective partners and their families; employers brazenly discriminated against those looking to get their lives back on track. This bequest of guilt, isolation and shame was often passed on to the children of survivors.
Such indignity persists to this day. A survey published on Sunday by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that more than 90,000 hibakusha still feel anxiety over the impact of radiation exposure on their health and believe their descendants may also be affected. Such fears will not be confirmed or disproved any time soon. In recent years, Japan’s health ministry has tightened the eligibility criteria for hibakusha which means those exposed to relatively low levels of radiation will never be evaluated.
The only means of redress is the justice system, where in the past decade, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have won time and again at district courts, high courts and the nation’s Supreme Court against the government as they seek official recognition of their illnesses. Even so, prime minister Shinzo Abe’s administration refuses to bow to the calls from the hibakusha, their relatives and their supporters to undertake a wholesale review of the system of relief.
On Thursday, Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima, will gather with delegates in the city’s Peace Memorial Park for an annual service of remembrance. Twenty years ago, his predecessor, Takashi Hiraoka, attended the same event, then marking the 50th anniversary, where he delivered an evocative address. “Memory,” he said, “is where the past and the future meet.”
A generation on, the divergence between the two has yet to be bridged. The hibakusha do not have much time left. Through inconceivable pain and neglect, they have made the choice to speak out, devoting their lives to the cause of lasting peace. Now in the twilight of their lives, it is time they found their own peace.