Surviving Hiroshima and Nagasaki Experiences and Psycho-social Meanings Aiko Sawada, Julia Chaitin & Dan Bar-On

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Surviving Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Experiences and Psycho-social Meanings

Aiko Sawada, Julia Chaitin & Dan Bar-On

Contact information: Prof. Aiko Sawada, Department of Nursing, Faculty of Medicine, Toyama Medical and Pharmaceutical University, 2630 Sugitani, Toyama-shi, 930-0194 Japan

Telephone: 0081 76 434 2281 (ext) 2423 (office)

e-mail :

We would like to thank the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Israel Association for the Promotion of International Scientific Relations ( IAPISR) for support of this research. We would also like to thank our interviewees whose willingness to share their life experiences with us made this study possible. All of the names used in this article are pseudonyms.


In spite of the fact that the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred nearly 60 years ago, there has been almost no psychosocial research on the long-term effects of these unprecedented nuclear attacks on its victims. In this qualitative study, we analyzed semi-structured interviews taken with 8 survivors of the bombs – 5 from Nagasaki and 3 from Hiroshima. Our research questions were: When the survivors talk about their experiences, what do they focus on and with what are they preoccupied? What can we learn about the long-term effects of the experiences from both psychological and physical aspects? And, where does the A-bomb experience “fit” into the survivors’ lives? Our analyses showed that there were 9 main themes that emerged from the interviews that could be grouped into two main categories – themes connected to the experience itself and themes connected to life afterward. We discuss the implications of these themes on the personal, social and cultural levels and offer suggestions concerning policy and ideas for dealing with the trauma.


at 11:02 I heard a huge explosion.. I saw a strong, blue and red flash… there was a thrust of extremely hot air. I ran, covering my eyes and head with my hands, to take cover between the storage shed and the house... That’s when there was a blast and… I passed out. I thought a bomb had dropped by my feet. I couldn’t move... I called out for help but nobody came. I heard a child crying, though, and I thought, “My child is safe.”… he was inside the house.. the blast flattened the house. But my grandmother threw herself on top of the baby, so he was spared being crushed under the rubble. However, my child suffered burns and sheets of skin on his arms, legs and face were loosely dangling from his body... I managed to break through the wall and my grandmother gave me back my child. With my child in my arms, I walked far to a hill and looked down upon the city. What I saw was a raging inferno. I thought: “What in the world happened?...

Kinue Y, a survivor of Nagasaki
On August 6th and 9th, 1945, the US dropped atomic bombs – first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki – in order to bring about an end to the war with Japan. For the first time in history, weapons of such massive destruction were used against civilians. During the first two weeks after the atomic bombings, the death toll rose to approximately 150,000. By the end of December 1945, the death toll was estimated to be 200,000 (Japan Confederation of A-and H- Bomb Sufferers Organization). Today, it is approximated that there are between 100,000 – 400,000 individuals who were exposed to the bombs who are still alive (Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 29. June 1999

In spite of the massive destruction and death, and in spite of the fact that these events occurred close to 60 years ago, the psychosocial effects of the experience on the survivors have rarely been studied. Tatara (1998), a Japanese psychologist, notes four reasons for this lack of research attention and for the reticence of A-bomb survivors to openly share their experiences: (1) sociopolitical and cultural factors, (2) biological factors, (3) social and (4) psychological factors. The sociopolitical and cultural factors include the belief by a number of nations that if the bombs had not been used, Japan would never have surrendered. In addition, within Japan, because of lasting physical effects of radiation from the bombs, many survivors had difficulty holding on to steady employment. Lack of employment meant that many of these individuals had below average income and suffered from low social status, putting them and their families at social and economic disadvantages. Biological factors include the long-range effects of radiation on the human body, particularly with regard to the genetic and hereditary aspects of radiation. While research on these effects is far from conclusive, the Japanese government recognizes defects in the children of survivors as one of the effects of the bombs (Wakabayashi, 1995). Concerning social and psychological factors, many survivors worried about marrying and having children for fear of transmitting radiation-related physical disorders. These fears also exist among the unaffected Japanese population, stigmatizing the survivors and their families. Knowledge that an individual might have “bad blood” led survivors to fear social rejection if they publicly talked about their experiences. As Tatara notes, A-bomb survivors have tended to keep their history a secret which has lead to feelings of isolation, on top of the burden of maintaining secrecy for so many years about their suffering.

In this article, we attempt to address some of these issues by looking at open-ended interviews with 8 of the survivors of the nuclear attacks. We did not chance upon this topic. The first author, a Japanese professor of nursing and bioethics, became interested in exploring the long-term psycho-social effects of having survived the A-bomb after she learned about the impact that the Holocaust had on survivors. She questioned why the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not talk about what they had lived through, and why so little was reported in the psychological literature. This topic was also of interest for the second and third authors; for close to 15 years, these Jewish-Israeli social psychologists have researched the ways in which Holocaust survivors and their descendants work through the traumatic past. All of us became interested in the topic of how A-bomb survivors deal with their experiences, especially after learning how the topic had been silenced for so many years.

Literature review

When we undertook our literature search, we were very surprised to discover that very few papers have been published about the psycho-social effects of living through the A-bomb attacks. We will begin with a short review of the major physical effects of the bombings, then present results from the published psycho-social literature. We will end this section with a brief look at the consequences of social trauma on individuals by using the Holocaust as our reference point. There are three reasons for citing the Holocaust literature: (1): much has been written about this social trauma and the insights that have been gained in this field can be useful for our present topic of inquiry; (2) the Holocaust and the A-bombings were two massive traumas that were unprecedented and unfathomable. Therefore, individuals could not prepare themselves for what was to come and (3) the events of the Holocaust took place during the Second World War, the war in which Japan was hit by the A-bomb.

Medical effects of the nuclear attacks on Japan

The atomic explosions inflicted complex physical damage: individuals suffered burns from heat radiation and fire; injuries from the blast wave and atomic diseases from initial radiation, induced radiation and residual radiation. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation ( and the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization note that early effects of exposure to the bombs, based on medical interviews taken with more than 100,000 survivors between 1956 - 1961, included the acute radiation symptoms of fatigue, high fevers, epilation, nausea, vomiting, bleeding from the gums, cataracts, diarrhea, leukopenia and purpura. In general, acute radiation symptoms did not appear at low-dose radiation exposures. Between the years 1950 – 1990, there were nearly 430 reported deaths from cancer that were attributed to the radiation, with the proportion of individuals dying from cancer higher among those who were closer to the hypocenter. Today, people who were exposed to the bomb, especially those who were children at the time, run a higher risk of developing leukemia. The Life Span Study mortality analyses ( revealed a statistically significant relationship between radiation and deaths resulting from non-cancer diseases. A total of 15,633 non-cancer deaths occurred between 1950 and 1990 among the 50,113 persons with significant radiation doses. The Adult Health Study ( that analyzed the relationship between radiation exposure and a number of selected nonmalignant disorders found statistically significant excess risks for uterine myoma, chronic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis, thyroid disease, and cardiovascular disease among survivors of the bombs. In sum, then, not only did the survivors of the atomic bombs suffer from various radiation effects immediately following the event, but have remained at higher risk than the general population for a number of other physical ailments.

Psycho-social effects of the nuclear attacks on the victims

Setsuko Thurlow (1982), who was 13 years old when the bomb hit Hiroshima, has given a first hand account of her experience, combining her narrative with psychological, sociopolitical and historical responses to her own suffering and the suffering of other A-bomb victims. Thurlow notes that when she crawled out from under the building in which she had been buried, she met with “…grotesque physical condition…beyond description…” (pg. 639). This inability to describe what she was thinking and feeling continued as the weeks passed: “…I remember being stunned by indescribable and undistinguishable feelings and not being able to express then…” (pg. 639). In her report, Thurlow talks about experiencing a kind of psychic numbing, and that this is a feeling that still exists, to some degree, to this day.

In a study that was conducted in the early 1980s, Silberner (1981) talks about the continuing psychological problems of the survivors. She notes that many refuse to leave their homes, cannot hold jobs, and suffer from nightmares, depression or anger. The researcher identified three levels of survivor reactions: denial of memories of the event, the feeling that the person will never be anything else but a survivor of the bombing, and transcendence. In addition, Silberner noted the generalized psychic numbing that the A-bomb caused.

The concept of psychic numbing brings us to the work of Robert Lifton, the scholar and psychiatrist who coined the term, and who is, perhaps, the most well-known psychosocial researcher of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. Lifton has been studying the psychological effects of this trauma since 1962 (1967, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1993). In his research (1980), he defines a survivor as one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death and remained alive. Lifton has identified 5 psychological themes:

1. The death imprint and death anxiety: the survivor remembers indelible images of grotesque forms of death. Survivors are overwhelmed with and bound to this imagery, seeing all subsequent experience through its prism. Some feel unable to move beyond this imagery, while others find it to be a source of knowledge and value for life.

2. The death guilt or survivor guilt epitomized by the question: “Why did I survive while others died?” Part of the survivors’ sense of horror is the memory of their own helplessness or inability to act or feel in a way they would ordinarily have thought appropriate. Survivors feel a sense of debt to the dead and responsibility for them. They also feel both psychological guilt (self-condemnation concerning what one has done or not done) and moral and legal guilt (ethical and social consensus in judgments concerning wrongdoing).

3. Psychic numbing: the diminished capacity to feel, in which the mind and feelings shut down. Lifton (1975, 1980, 1982) reported many instances of psychic numbing in his interviews with individuals who survived the bomb in Hiroshima.

4. Suspicion of counterfeit nurturance: the survivor feels entrapped in a world characterized by distrust in human relationships. Survivors feel mutual antagonism with others in their world. Life seems counterfeit.

5. Struggle for meaning: As the survivor learns to live with the trauma that s/he has experienced, there is an impulse to bear witness and to have the crimes committed against them acknowledged. Survivors of the A-bomb who struggle for meaning often describe themselves as having a mission.

In addition to these themes, Lifton (1982) also delineated three post-bombing stages that the survivors experienced. In the first stage, immediately after the bomb fell, the fear that the survivors felt went beyond their own death. One feeling repeatedly expressed was that “…the whole world was dead …Hiroshima was gone, the whole world was dying…” (pg. 620). During the second stage, lasting days or weeks, people who first appeared to be untouched, began exhibiting physical symptoms of acute radiation - bleeding from bodily orifices, particularly the eyes, severe diarrhea, high temperatures, weakness, anorexia, and then, often death. These symptoms “…gave the people of Hiroshima the sense that the weapon had left behind poison in the bones…from that day on, trees, grass, flowers would never again grow in Hiroshima” (pg. 621). The third stage involved effects that appeared years after the bomb, of increased incidence of leukemia and other cancers in people who were significantly exposed. This led to relating to the experiences as “…an endless process, and an endless fear…about transmitting radiation effects to subsequent generations...” (pg. 621). The fear, thus, became infinite.

The final study that we uncovered in our literature search (Todeschini, 1999), focused on the way in which the A-bomb affected women, as women, within modern Japanese culture. This dissertation, which analyzed the life histories and narratives of women who were teenagers at the time of the bombings, found that women’s bodies emerged as potent signifiers for symbolizing bomb-related suffering, both for the women and for their communities. Radiation illnesses were seen as transforming the women’s bodies into aggressors and ‘polluters.’
Psycho-social effects of the Holocaust on the victims

What can we learn from research on the long-term effects of the Holocaust that may help us understand how the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the victims? We know from our own work (e.g. Bar-On, 1995; Chaitin, 2002), and from other research on Holocaust survivors, that the effects of the trauma did not end when the victims were liberated at the end of war, but are still evident today. As early as the 1960s, clinicians and researcher, such as Niederland (1964, 1968) and Chodoff (1969) described the “survivor syndrome” – a composite of symptoms seen as affecting many concentration camp survivors. The syndrome included depression; nightmares; anxiety of renewed persecution; psychosomatic symptoms; “survivor guilt”; isolation of affect; cognitive and memory disturbances; an inability to verbalize the traumatic experiences; regressive methods of dealing with aggression; and a ‘living corpse’ appearance.

From 1980, after the inclusion of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the DSM –III, many clinicians and researchers (e.g. Danieli, 1998; Krell & Sherman, 1997; van der Kolk, 1987; Solomon & Prager, 1992) have explored the long-term negative psychosocial effects of the Holocaust on survivors through this prism; researchers now speak of post-trauma, even when survivors do not necessarily meet the criteria for the DSM disorder. It is interesting to note that while this disorder was originally identified with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki populations also in mind, very little work has been published about this.

Hans Keilson (1992), however, who undertook a longitudinal study on Dutch Jewish war orphans, criticizes overuse and over reliance on PTSD. In his concept of "sequential traumatization,” he identified three traumatic sequences: (1). Enemy occupation and the beginning of terror against the Jews, with attacks on the social and psychological integrity of Jewish families; (2) the period of direct persecution; and (3) the postwar period during which the fate of the children was decided.

Keilson’s concept offers a radical change in the understanding of trauma. Instead of an “event” that has “consequences,” trauma is viewed as a process with life-long sequences. For example, a severe second traumatic sequence and a ‘good’ third traumatic sequence imply better long-term health perspectives for the victim than a ‘not-so-terrible’ second traumatic sequence and a ‘bad’ third traumatic sequence. This is important in explaining why trauma continues, even years after the event and helps us understand why some individuals, who suffered severe social trauma, develop symptoms immediately after the original trauma, as well as years later. Keilson’s concept also illustrates that since there is no “post” in trauma, mental health professionals are also always part of the traumatic situation and do not operate outside of it.

One of the advantages of Keilson’s conceptualization is that it is relevant for different cultural and political settings. Since it does not define a fixed set of symptoms or situations but invites one to examine specific historical processes, it allows the quality and the quantity of the traumatic sequences to be very different in different contexts. One sequential change that seems to be relevant in most parts of the world is the change between active war and persecution and the period that follows. In many cases, this ‘afterwards’ needs to be divided into different sequences.

In spite of the wealth of research on PTSD and the Holocaust, since the 1980s, literature dealing with the survivors has had less of a pathological slant and has focused often on the memories of the survivors. For example, Laub (Auerhahn & Laub, 1998; Laub, 1992) has discussed 8 kinds of Holocaust memory and noted that survivors often distort/change their narrated memories in order to cope during post-war life. Langer (1991) has identified 5 other kinds of memory – all of which are seen as reflecting the great and deep difficulty that the survivors have in recalling and narrating their life experiences from the Holocaust. More recently, the second and third authors (Bar-On & Chaitin, 2002; Chaitin & Bar-On, 2002) studied different aspects of survivors’ memories; they looked at the way survivors who were children during the Holocaust recall and narrate the parent-child relationships that they experienced during the war. In all of these studies, survivors’ memories are tapped through the use of very open ended interview methods, such as life stories (Rosenthal, in press) or testimonies (Langer, 1991) – methods seen as being particularly sensitive for use with populations that have suffered severe social trauma.

While there is consensus today that we cannot classify all Holocaust survivors as suffering from PTSD or survivor syndrome, there is no debate over the fact that the Holocaust negatively affected the victims of the Holocaust for life, even for those survivors who have functioned well (Bar-On, 1995; Helmreich, 1992). One reason why many survivors still carry deep wounds of their past is connected to the way in which many of their societies treated the survivors after the Holocaust. One concept that has been repeatedly mentioned in the psycho-social literature in connection to this phenomenon is the “conspiracy of silence” (Bar-On et al., 1998; Danieli 1984,1998; Solomon, 1998; Suedfeld, Fell, Krell, Wiebe & Steel, 1997).

When the survivors emigrated to their post-war homes, many tried talking about their experiences in an attempt to reconnect with the ‘normal’ world. However, they were often confronted with a conspiracy of silence; people were not only unwilling to listen to the victims’ stories, but they also often refused to believe the veracity of what they were being told. The atmosphere of social avoidance, repression and denial worked well – the survivors felt alienated and betrayed, but publicly kept silent. As a result, many survivors withdrew into their families (Danieli, 1998).

The conspiracy of silence had a double effect; in some families, the children became captive audiences, in others the silence outside prevailed inside as well. Not all survivors were unhappy with this conspiracy; many feared that talking about their memories would not only be painful for them, but would also harm the healthy development of their children. For many survivors, it took over 40 years for them to begin recounting their stories publicly (Langer, 1991; Laub, 1992). Others, to this day, remain silent about their experiences.

In sum, then, when we look at the social psychological aspects of the effects of the Holocaust on the survivors, we see that the traumas experienced so many years ago continue to have repercussions, and that the scars of the past inflicted on the individuals who were young at the time still plague the victims in their old age.

Based on the above knowledge, and due to our special interest in memories of survivors of massive social trauma, as they are expressed in their narratives and open interviews, we posed the following research questions: How are the experiences of the A bomb survivors remembered? When the survivors talk about their experiences, what do they focus on and with what are they preoccupied? From their interviews, what can we learn about the long-term effects of the experiences – from both psychological and physical aspects? And, finally, where does the A-bomb experience “fit” into the survivors’ lives?


The sample: Eight A-bomb survivors (in Japanese - Hibakusha), of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, were participants in our study. At the time of the bombings, their ages ranged from 14 – 32. Six of the interviewees were bombed directly (they were inside the cities when they were bombed) and two were bombed indirectly (they entered the cities within a few days after the bombing to care for the wounded or to deal with the dead bodies). Six of the survivors are female and two are male. Two of the survivors were married at the time of the war and the other 6 married after the war. All of them have children and grandchildren (see Table 1).
(Insert Table 1 about here)

Instruments – data collection: We chose to use a semi-structured interview with some open-ended questions for data collection in order to give the survivors the chance to talk openly and at length about their life experiences and understandings. We believed that a more open approach was appropriate for this study for two main reasons: (1) given the dearth of published material on the psycho-social effects of the atomic bombs, we believed that it was important to learn first hand from the survivors how they experienced, remember, and live with the trauma. We were interested in their understandings of their experiences, as opposed to objective measurements of their psychological/physical states; and (2) we did not want our interviewees to feel that they we were “labeling” them, which might lead them to feeling stigmatized.

The questions used in these interviews included: (1) the survivor’s life experiences before the war; (2) experiences of the A-bombing; (3) life experiences after the war, until the present; (4) the survivor’s physical state and physical aftereffects of the bombing; (5) the survivor’s psychological state after the bombing – e.g. sense of fear, anxiety, nightmares, grief etc.; (6) present-day life (e.g. occupation, life style, family, hobbies, etc.); (7) reactions of post-war Japanese society; (8) discussion of A-bomb experience with children or grandchildren; (9) wish for the future; and (10) message for others. In addition to these open-ended questions, the interviewees were also asked to talk freely about whatever they saw as being relevant and to add information they felt was not covered by the questions.

Instruments – data analysis: We used two main types of analysis in this study - global or heuristic analyses (Rosenthal, 1993; Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach & Zilber, 1998) and thematic analyses (Rosenthal, 1993). Global analyses are overall summaries of the interviews that note: emotional atmosphere during the interview (e.g. Did it appear difficult for the survivor to talk or did she use a dry reporting style of narration?), central themes (e.g. A-bomb experience, life in Japan after the war), and tentative hypotheses that appear to be of significance for the survivor’s life (e.g. “It appears as if H feels guilty for having survived the bomb while his best friend did not.”), and overall style of narration. Then we carried out the thematic analyses by identifying the themes that appeared to be central to each interview and looking at what they encompassed.

Procedure: The first author interviewed the 8 A-bomb survivors. In the beginning, she asked the Japan Confederation of A-and-H Bomb Sufferers to look for survivors who would agree to be interviewed, and provided a letter of request. The staff introduced her to the chief of staff of each survivor group in each location. However, even with the cooperation of the survivors’ groups, finding survivors who were willing to be interviewed proved to be quite difficult and the first author learned that many survivors who were approached refused to participate. Unfortunately, her contacts did not provide her with any information concerning the number or demographics of the “refusers,” so we know nothing about the potential participants who did not wish to be interviewed. While this procedure of recruitment was far from optimal, in Japanese society, it is very difficult for a researcher who is not an A-bomb survivor to search directly for Hibakusha. This is because most of the victims do not wish to talk about their experiences to a person with whom they are unfamiliar, since they are afraid that others will misunderstand their experiences. Therefore, an introduction by a member of a survivors’ group is necessary for this procedure.

A month after the search for interviewees began, one survivor was introduced to the first author, and then through her contacts, she was introduced to other survivors. The first author eventually found 7 more survivors who agreed to be interviewed. Except for the married couple (Hiroshi and Michiko K.), none of these interviewees knew one another. As soon as an introduction to the potential participants was obtained, the individual was contacted in order to reconfirm his or her consent, and an appointment for an interview was made. All of the participants in the study agreed to have the interviews tape-recorded and transcribed. The interviews took place between June 2000 and March 2001.

Seven of the interviews took place at the interviewees’ homes and one took place at a Tokyo coffee shop, at the request of the interviewee. Two of the survivors were interviewed alone, while the 6 others were accompanied by either friends or family members – again at their request. The interviews lasted between one and a half hours to three and a half hours.

After each interview, a transcription of each case was made and translated from Japanese into English. The English transcriptions were then sent to the joint researchers in Israel for analyses. Since we live in different countries, each researcher first analyzed the material separately, and we communicated through e-mail our ideas to one another. When we met together for three times, we discussed our analyses and made final decisions regarding understanding of the materials.


We will address our research questions by focusing on the themes that we discerned in the survivors’ interviews. These themes helped us gain insight into how A-bomb survivors recall and narrate their experiences of the bombings, what the long-term physical and psychological effects of the experiences are and where or how the survivors see their A-bomb experiences as “fitting” into their lives.

(Insert Table 2 about here)
In the analyses, we found 9 themes that appeared to be important to the survivors (Table 2). The frequency of the 9 themes in descending order was (1) the memories of the attack and immediately afterward – most of which have a nightmarish quality; (2) post-war social action, as a result of the experience; (3) physical and health concerns affecting the survivor and/or the children; (4) views on Japanese society, including the social stigma associated with being a survivor; (5) survivor guilt (6) reasons for surviving the bomb – mainly good luck; (7) discussion of family members killed in the bombings; (8) life afterward – including the emphasis on hard work; and (9) worry about the future.

In this paper we will focus our discussion on the three themes that were the most prevalent – the memories of the experience and immediately afterward, post-war social action and physical and health issues. It is important for us to note that the decision to discuss only these three themes does not in any way reflect the unimportance of the other issues raised by the survivors. However, to do them justice, we will have to leave their discussion for another paper.

The memories of the a-bomb experience and immediately afterward

All of our interviewees talked at length about the day of the bombing itself and life immediately following the experience. The topics included: detailed memories of burned and injured friends and others, often connected to feelings of helplessness at not being able to ease their suffering; sensory memories of the A-bombs – flashes of light, thunder-like sounds and the stench of the burned and dead; treatment and care that they gave others – including graphic accounts of the physical aid that they gave the victims, or the emotional difficulty in following the orders (such as not to give the burned victims water to drink) that they were given by the medical staff ; and the zombie-like motions of the other victims and the eerie quiet that immediately followed the attacks.

In order to demonstrate how the survivors talked about these issues, we will present two examples. The first quote comes from Mitsu O (all the names are pseudonyms) who was 15 years old at the time of the Nagasaki bombing. On August 9th, she was riding the train with her girlfriend when the bomb hit:

on our way home the A-bomb was dropped…when the train stopped at the … .station, we heard a big sound…we had no idea that it was caused by an A-bombing…we sheltered ourselves under the seat. At that moment, I felt something like a mass of heat passing through in the train…we needed to evacuate…we came back to the…station. Heavy black smoke was… rising up in the direction of Nagasaki …the station official said to us: ‘A rescue train carrying many wounded people arrives here in no time. Take care of the wounded people’…the train came into the station. At a glance, the train looked as if it arrived from hell. I felt a shuddering dread. Wounded people were loaded…in the passenger cars…on the roofs, the decks…all of them were staring at us…I felt weak at my knees…I managed to get into the train to them. Some of them had already died. The inside of the train looked like an inferno with groans and stench of blood. I grabbed hands of wounded people in an attempt to take them off the train, but their skin came off every time I grabbed their hands. So giving up trying to grab their hands, I carried them on my shoulders to carry them out of the train…as we repeated this action many times, we became more and more insensitive. In the end, we felt nothing even if we strode over dead bodies…
The second quote comes from the interview with Taro Y who was a young man of 19 and studying at a technical college when Hiroshima was bombed. During the war, he was taken with other students to work in the munitions factory and to help out with teaching younger students. On August 6th while other students were mobilized for work in the munitions factory, he and his friend were ordered by their teacher to carry out all of the equipment out of the laboratory at school:
…I was at school when the A-bomb was dropped … the school was within two kilometers from the hypocenter…there was a great big flash, a really strong light… my eyes got hit and at that moment my body was lifted swiftly and then thrown to the ground…I don’t remember if my friend was over me, or I was over him…the building fell on top…as first I thought that I’d lost my sight…and after a while, I saw…the naval bus came down to save (the survivors)… I had glass pieces that had flown stuck in my face and neck and was laying down, bloody all over. However, for some reason, the effect of the radiations wasn’t strong to me… the naval man shouted: “Is the navy here?’ I said: ‘I’m a student.’ He said: ‘No…I can only save naval men’… the bleeding was pretty bad…So the other students…put a few words in to help saying …’please take him with you’, but they didn’t take me…we waited…a bus came. And this time they said that they’ll take anyone…including myself…
And later on in the interview, he continues with what he saw and experienced on that day:
some people staggered around as if they were sleepwalking and fainted and that was the end. Clothes were burnt, too. Women had their hair burnt. The hair gets all disheveled like this, like a zombie…people became all worn out like garbage. Those kinds of people staggered around and when they trip over something…they fall and die. I saw this kind of scene on the streets…

From these two short excerpts, we see signs of the phenomena noted by Lifton (1980, 1982) when he described Hiroshima victims and those observed by Niederland (1964, 1968) in his clinical work with concentration camp survivors. These include psychic numbing (Mitsu: “…In the end we felt nothing even if we strode over dead bodies”), the death imprint and imagery (Mitsu: “…the train looked as if it had arrived from hell…their skin came off every time I grabbed their hands…” and Taro: “…people staggered…and fainted and that was the end…people became all worn out like garbage…they fall and die”) and the beginnings of the feeling of suspicion of counterfeit nurturance, on the part of Taro (the response of the naval officer who refuses to take Taro to get aid, in spite of the pleas of other victims). In addition, these excerpts also echo Thurlow’s (1982) recollections of her own experiences and the experiences of other survivors.

The 6 other interviews that also focused on the memory of the days the bombs fell provided descriptions similar in their grotesqueness and details to the ones given by Mitsu and Taro. All of these survivors noted that they have these memories etched in their minds, and that they continue to see, hear and smell them to this day.
Post-war social action, as a result of the experience

Seven of the survivors spoke about their participation in A-bomb survivors’ organizations. Some began their work soon after the war and the US occupation of Japan had ended, others became involved years later, when their children were grown and married, and they were less worried that if others knew about their past, it would adversely affect their children. The social action of the survivors takes different forms; involvement with political parties that the survivors see as furthering social and civil rights, not only for survivors, but for Japanese society in general; working toward influencing legislatures to allocate more funds for A-bomb victims, involvement in survivor support groups, helping other survivors manage tasks in their every day lives, and protesting and demonstrating against nuclear bomb development and testing.

One survivor who was involved in political activism throughout his adult life, and who stressed this theme in his interview, is Hiroshi K. Hiroshi was 16 years old when he was exposed to the bomb in Nagasaki. While he was in school at the time, due to the war, he and his fellow students were mobilized to work in a munitions factory. August 9th was the day that he had off work, and he was spending it with his friend:
my streetcar halted…I got off…and ran toward my friend’s house…we decided to leave the shelter…and…11:02 came. The image I remember is that of everything turning yellow. There was a flash and it turned yellow. Then I felt my body being lifted up…I next felt a sharp pain in my head as if I’d been hit with a hammer. Then I passed out…

Later that day, his friend died. Hiroshi goes on to talk about his political activism, describing his work with the labor union and socialist and communist political parties:

I worked as a secretary for the labor union. But the Socialist Party stood for the Korean War. Therefore, some bolted the party and formed the Laborers’ and Farmers’ Party. But then the general alliance of labor union said to me: ‘You’re no good to us as a Laborers’ and Farmers’ party member. Quit’ and they fired me… I began to harbor doubts about the Laborers’ and Farmers’ party, so I joined the Communist party...I gradually turned from a rightist into a leftist…I was…received as the secretary general at the Nagasaki district union cooperative…I was urged to run for the Nagasaki prefectural assembly…successfully on the third try…I was encouraged to run in the Lower House and Upper House elections. And that’s how things have been up to this day…

Later on in the interview, we learn from Hiroshi’s wife, Michiko, that Hiroshi collapsed during the election campaign, due to hemorrhaging. Although this put an end to his formal political career, this did not end Hiroshi’s social activism:

I work hard as a Communist party member because I want to change the world. Continuing to talk about my A-bomb experience to children is also something I live for…once I start to speak about my A-bomb experience, the children concentrate very hard. The call to abolish nuclear weapons moves them… (it) gives my life meaning…

A second example of social action comes from the interview with Toshi Y, widowed since 1980, who experienced the A-bombing in a suburb of Hiroshima. Toshi was a married woman of 32, and a mother of three, when the bomb fell. She, like the other interviewees, also witnessed harsh sights of death and recalls these with graphic detail. After Toshi received her A-bomb certificate (a certificate issued by the government to individuals who are formally recognized as surviving the bombings), she became involved with organizations that fight for survivors’ rights, taking on positions of responsibility over the years:
I got energy by taking leadership in activities such as going to the Diet, the ward assembly, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Council for a petition or a hearing. I go to many places to deliver petition… The use of nuclear weapons should be avoided. Our goal (in the association) is nuclear disarmament of the world…In my opinion, (Pakistan) has carried out such (nuclear) tests because they did not know what devastating impact nuclear weapons had. (I think) it was strange that they were happy with the successful result of their test. They did not know what a real fear was like….I wonder if people living near the test sights in Nevada are receiving much money… people who don’t know the fear inflicted by nuclear weapons, feel happy with the successful results of the nuclear bomb test... This is a photograph of our signature collecting campaign against war when the Gulf War broke out...
The motivation to be involved in social action, as expressed in these two examples and in other interviewers with survivors in our sample, echoes Lifton’s (1980) identification of a salient theme among survivors – their struggle for meaning and their attempts to understand how they can integrate their A-bomb experiences into their post-war lives. These survivors may also be motivated to take social action, either consciously or unconsciously, due to survivor’s guilt. Given that these individuals were helpless to either prevent the A-bomb attacks or to do more for the victims, it appears as if the survivors engage in activities of social action out of a sense of debt and responsibility to the dead. These types of activity may also be tied to another theme that was noted in four of the interviews – that of the fight against the social stigmatization of the survivors within Japanese society.
Physical and health concerns affecting the survivor and/or the children

The last theme that we will present here was discussed at length by 6 of the interviewees and included such issues as: immediate radiation reactions after the bombing; fears and suffering of adverse effects of the bomb concerning the ability to get pregnant, the fear of having and experiencing miscarriages; passing on genetic disorders to their children; having physically handicapped children; developing leukemia and other cancers; children’s anemia; removal of inner affected organs and hemorrhaging. When the survivors talked about physical problems and their health concerns, they tended to do so in relation to their children and when they spoke about friends and relatives who had also been caught by the bombs.

The interview with Yuki S, who was 14 years old when the bomb hit Nagasaki, provides a good example. Yuki, who was an athlete as a young girl and adolescent, was attending school at the time. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she speaks a great deal about physical after effects of the bomb, talking about her own health issues, her worries over giving birth and her children’s subsequent health, and the health of friends and family. For example, she states:
… I did not have my period after the A-bomb… I grieved over my future alone. In December of the year, I had my period for the second time and gave a sigh of relief… I often had nosebleeds. They started for no reason. While I was talking, I would feel something warm on my face, and a nosebleed had started… (And later on, discussing her children) Except for the second baby whose birth weight was 3.200 kg, my other two children were barely heavier than the weight of a premature baby when they were born. I didn’t know if this was caused by my body condition... my first child was born 27 days behind the expected date. He didn’t come out easily. The umbilical cord wound around his neck twice. He was born with a pale face. Looking at him, my mother thought, “He won’t live…I gave birth to our second child, in 1958, without any trouble. It took less than 2 hours. He looked fine, coming out…
Question: Were you worried about the adverse effect of the A-bomb attack during your pregnancy?
When the first baby was not born as expected, my husband’s family talked about various fears behind my back such as the adverse effect of the A-bomb attack and incomplete growth of the baby. My husband said to them, “She has been healthy. Everything will be all right.” It was a relief for me that he didn’t show deep concerns about aftereffects of the A-bomb attack. Physically challenged children were born to some A-bomb sufferers. Fortunately, my sisters and I did not have such children. I always thought it would be very hard to be a parent of a disabled child...

The last example of this theme comes from the interview undertaken with Michiko K, Hiroshi’s wife. Most of Michiko’s interview centers around health issues – mostly her husband’s ailments and her constant worries about her only son:

…we were worried whether the child would be born with a normal body…as we had feared, the baby was born premature…his growth was slow. His eyesight took time to develop. The eye doctor said, ‘The nerves aren’t dead but it’ll take time. You should expect it to take twice the time as the average child.’ Every day I was so worried, I felt as if years had been taken off my life…He was my last child…My doctor stopped me from having more children because of the risk of toxemia…
When Michiko talks about her husband, her narrative is also centered on his health:

(When he ran) for the Lower House…he continued with the party’s prefectural work... he was 49. He was preparing all night for collective bargaining, but collapsed due to a subarachnoid hemorrhage… chances of survival were estimated to be three percent. But the operation was successful, so after a three month fight against the illness, he was released from the hospital…his ability to memorize new things was impaired, the doctor said it would be difficult for him to work regularly… (He) had been suffering headaches before he collapsed, he’d been checked at the university, but…they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He would be sent home with ‘no abnormalities.’…

In sum, the theme of concern with physical effects of the A-bomb extended not only to the survivors themselves, but to their children and other loved ones. When speaking about others in their interviews, the survivors always noted the physical ailments that these other survivors had, thus creating a link between surviving the bomb and physical repercussions.

While we do not have space to go into descriptions and examples of the 6 other themes that were found to be central to the survivors’ interviews, we would like to present just one case of silencing the past that we believe made it so difficult for us to find survivors who were willing to participate in our study. As Eiko M notes, a survivor of Hiroshima who was a nurse during the war:

No, I did not (speak about surviving the bomb). I asked the same question to other A-bomb survivors. Their answer was they would never tell because they did not want it to be an obstacle in their children’s marriage. I decided to follow their examples…I wondered why A-bomb survivors should feel uneasy to tell the truth, but I was careful not to let others know I was an A-bomb survivor. I could not tell my neighbors that I took part in a campaign to collect signatures for a petition as an A-bomb survivor….I was afraid that I might be discriminated against by others if I told them the truth…”

From this interview, and from the interviews with others, we see how the conspiracy of silence (Danieli, 1984) that was characteristic of the interaction between Holocaust survivors and their societies also appears to have characterized the interaction between the Hibakusha and post-war Japanese society as well. This inability to talk about the past may be a sign that Japanese society has not yet fully mourned its dead.

Discussion and Conclusions

The themes that emerged from the interviews with the Hibakusha in our sample could be grouped into two main categories. The first set connected to the bomb experience itself (memories of the attack and immediately afterward – often graphic and frightening; reasons for surviving the bomb; the bomb experiences that family members had) and the second set connected to post-war life (post-war social action; health concerns affecting the survivor and/or the children; views on Japanese society, including the social stigma associated with being a survivor; survivor guilt; hard life afterward; and worries about the future).

The survivors in our sample talked very little about their pre-war lives, and most of the information given was quite sketchy in nature. While this result can be attributed, in part, to the semi-structured interview, the survivors were encouraged to talk about whatever they felt was relevant to understanding their experiences and their lives. Therefore, they could have used this opportunity to also talk about life before the A-bomb. In the few instances where the Hibakusha did so, it was almost always in conjunction with their homes’ geographical proximity to the place of the bombing, or as a way to explain why they were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki on those fateful days.

It appears to us that the survivors’ tendencies to focus on the bomb experience itself, and to a somewhat lesser degree, on life afterward – mostly from the physical and social standpoints, which tended to be negative in nature – point to the centrality that the A-bomb experiences have for the survivors’ lives. That is, the meaning of life for these survivors is centered on being a Hibakusha with life before this experience perceived as being either peripheral or a lead-in to their “real” life, which came afterward. With that said, in future research, it would be worthwhile to specifically ask survivors to speak about their pre-war lives in order to get a fuller picture of the entire life history and story, one that could help put their bombing experiences and post-war experiences into a larger context.

This understanding of ours also meshes with Keilson’s (1992) criticism of post trauma and with his concept of the sequentialization of trauma. While Keilson’s research centered on Holocaust survivors, it appears as if his work is also relevant for the study of A-bomb victims. The survivors in our sample cannot be defined as being in a post trauma stage, but are still in the process of learning to live with the fact that they were caught in A-bomb attacks and that there life has never been the same since. This is a difficult and ongoing process, given that their experiences have had myriad physical, psychological and social effects on their lives, and in some cases, on their children’s lives as well. While all of our interviewees lead “normal” lives, when they talked about their post-war lives, and their fears and concerns for their children and for themselves, we could see the sequential effects of having survived the bomb at each stage in their lives – from the first stage of the bomb experience itself, to physical and mental recovery, to rebuilding their lives, marrying and having children, and dealing with the late effects in their senior years.

Our analyses also showed that the themes found by Lifton in his research of Hiroshima victims (1975, 1980, 1982) were reflected in the responses that we received. Survivors of the atomic bombings spoke of death imprints and imagery, psychic numbing, the struggle for meaning, survivor guilt and, to a lesser extent, suspicion of counterfeit nurturance. While the survivors talked at length about the first three of these themes, the theme of survivor guilt was manifestly mentioned by only one survivor and addressed indirectly by two others, and the theme of distrust in post-war relationships with others was more hinted at than outwardly stated and described.

It is difficult to know why only one of the survivors in our sample openly expressed feelings distrust of Japanese non-survivors. Perhaps this is a non-issue for the survivors. However, given the difficulty that we had in finding interviewees, and given the statements that a number of the survivors made concerning their silence throughout the years, even often with their children, we are led to believe that this reticence to criticize Japanese society is associated with an existing Japanese conspiracy of silence concerning the A-bomb. This assumption becomes even more plausible when we take into account that so little has been published about the psycho-social effects of these bombs, in either Japanese or in English.

It appeared that it was much easier for the survivors in our sample to talk about the physical repercussions of their experiences than the psychological and social affects that the experiences had on their post-bomb lives. This finding is reminiscent of what Danieli (1982, 1998) found in her clinical work with families of Holocaust survivors. She found that, in many families, it was much more ‘acceptable’ to complain of physical ailments than to talk about psychological distress. While this finding in no way diminishes the importance of the physical consequences – for clearly, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effects of the radiation have been complex, severe, and long-lasting - it may be that in Japanese society as well, survivors feel more at ease talking to medical experts about health concerns than with mental health professionals and other helpers about the psychological and social repercussions of their traumatic experiences.

The reticence that the victims exhibited in speaking about the psycho-social effects of the A-bomb to others within their society and the conspiracy of silence which appears to characterize Japanese society around this issue, brings us to the point that this silence may be detrimental to the victims’ physical health. As Pennebaker, Barger and Tiebout (1989) found nearly 15 years ago, in their research on Holocaust survivors, survivors who were “high disclosers” were found to be in better health than “low disclosers,” a year after they were interviewed for their study. While it is clear that the effects of disclosure of traumatic experiences among individuals who have suffered terrible man-made tragedies, such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust, will differ from individual to individual, Pennebaker’s et al. findings, suggest that the physical health of the A bomb survivors might also improve if they are encouraged to talk about, rather than hide, their past.

Before turning to implications of our research, we would like to relate to our use of retrospective recall in this study, in specific, and the reliability of such recall of traumatic events in psychosocial research, in general. We make no claim that people, who are asked to recall traumatic events that occurred nearly 60 years ago, will provide information that is completely historically accurate. This is especially true of victims who were children or adolescents at the time of the event, as five of our sample were. However, our aim was not the search for the “objective” truth of what happened, but to gain insight into how the Hibakusha remember their life experiences and perceive the effects that they have had on them, through their narrated memories.

In this study, we adopted Langer’s (1991) view, which does not ignore that inaccuracies occur, but chooses to focus on what can be gained from studying narrated memories. As he so poignantly noted, when speaking about Holocaust survivors: “How credible can a reawakened memory be that tries to revive events so many decades after they occurred?...the terminology itself is at fault…There is no need to revive what has never died…since testimonies are human documents rather than… historical ones, the troubled interaction between past and present achieves a gravity that surpasses the concern with accuracy. Factual errors do occur from time to time…but they seem trivial in comparison to the complex layers of memory that give birth to versions of the self…” (pg. xv).

Langer is not alone in his use of retrospective recall of traumatic events that happened many years ago; many other scholars, especially in the field of Holocaust research (such as Auerhahn & Laub, 1998; Chaitin & Bar-On, 2001; Krell, forthcoming; and Rosenthal, 1998, to mention a few), base their work on narrated memories of children and adult survivors. While some of these memories are fragments or screen memories, when the interviewees begin to open up about their experiences, recall becomes witnessed narratives (Auerhahn & Laub, 1998). This is what we found in the present study as well.

In conclusion, we would like to note a few implications of our research for psychological/social health care needs, given the current world situation and the real threat of nuclear war. To begin with, it is time that the silencing of the past, which still continues today in Japanese society, needs to be broken. One way to begin this process is by video taping interviews with more survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and by making these interviews available to Japanese school children and students, educators, health professionals, social service workers, government officials, and the interested public. One way to accomplish such a goal would be to create a visual history foundation of nuclear bomb victims, similar to the Visual History of the Shoah Foundation ( created in 1994, or to enlarge the archive of testimonies at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum ( ) and to make these interviews available to a much wider Japanese audience.

The wall of silence, however, also needs to be broken in the Western world; given the real threat of nuclear war, the voices of the victims of the Japanese nuclear bombings need to be heard in the West as well. Perhaps collaborative research between institutions that deal with the Holocaust, and other man-made genocides, would be a good way to begin to accomplish such a goal. In this way, not only would the specifics of the A bomb attacks be made available for larger audiences, but the commonalities between the different horrors, such as between the Holocaust and the nuclear attacks, could be further studied and discussed.

However, documentation and research is only part of the story. It is also time for Japanese mental health professionals to begin to help break down the silence surrounding the long-term effects of the A-bomb attacks on the victims and their families. One suggestion for working toward this goal is by establishing a mental health service that would offer individual, family and group therapy and activities for victims and their children (and perhaps, even their grandchildren), with branches throughout the country. For example, Japanese mental health professionals could consider connecting to AMCHA – The Israel Center for Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation ( ) – and/or to the US based group One Generation After – an organization that was established by children of Holocaust survivors in 1978 that undertakes outreach community and campus activities ( in order to plan services and activities relevant for Japanese society and culture.

As we have learned from years of research on the effects of the Holocaust, and from the present study and the other research carried out by Lifton (e.g. 1967, 1982), the A-bomb experiences did not end on those two days in August 1945 that the bombs were dropped. The events continue to reverberate to this day, touching the children of the survivors, and, most probably, their grandchildren as well. We cannot undo the years of silencing, however, we can begin the long process of confronting this past, a necessary, long-term and painful process, for the present and coming generations.


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