Hibakusha haunted by survivor’s guilt 75 years after the atomic bombings


In the final days of World War II, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively, which forever altered the course of history.

While the bombs immediately incinerated the two cities and vast swaths of their populations — resulting in the deaths of an estimated 214,000 people by the end of that year, including 140,000 in Hiroshima and 74,000 in Nagasaki — survivors say the true horror of the bombings fell upon those who suffered health complications and survivor’s guilt afterward.

Now, 75 years later, those survivors reflect on their experiences and renew their call against nuclear weapons in an increasingly unstable world.

Saved By a Delayed Train
Jack Motoo Dairiki was 14 years old when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Although born in Sacramento, Calif., Dairiki was stranded in Japan as the war started between the U.S. and Japan. What started as a summer trip to see his sick grandfather, wound up as an extended stay through 1948.

Jack Dairiki holds a piece of art he created to depict the atomic bombings.
photo courtesy of Jack Dairiki

A 15-minute delay on the train likely saved Dairiki’s life, as he was slated to arrive in Hiroshima that fateful morning. He was three and-a-half miles away from the blast’s epicenter at the Toyo Factory in Mukainada, southwest of the city. The morning had been fraught with multiple air-raid warnings and Dairiki recalled seeing the B-29 bombers flying toward the city.

“When the explosion happened, I fell down to the ground and instinctively covered my eyes and ears,” Dairiki said, following the training he had received for when a regular bomb dropped nearby.

The blast broke most of the windows in the factory. Dairiki, weighing around 100 pounds at the time, said it felt like he was floating in the air.

Before the dust had settled, Dairiki followed the sound of footsteps toward a bomb shelter several thousand feet away.

“I looked back into the city, and all I could see was smoke and fire, and the mushroom cloud that was climbing up into the air,” said Dairiki, 89, a retired architect living in San Francisco’s Japantown.

After the 8:15 a.m. bombing, Dairiki said he stayed in the shelter until the afternoon when a teacher said he could go home since he lived away from the bomb’s epicenter. He walked the 10 miles home, seeing scores of survivors from the initial blast pleading for water and medical aid. He later learned that everyone in his family, including his aunt who was caught in the blast in Hiroshima, survived.

His father and grandfather went to the city to look for her, calling out to each victim on the side of the road since all of their clothes had burned off and their bodies were so disfigured. Dairiki said his father and grandfather miraculously found his aunt alive three days later.

According to Dairiki, Hiroshima had 55 hospitals, 200 doctors and 2,000 nurses before the bombing. The atomic bomb decimated them, leaving just three hospitals open with 20 doctors and 170 nurses to tend to the tens of thousands of people caught in the blast. With no medical care available, Dairiki’s grandmother used mashed potatoes as a substitute for bandages to cover his aunt’s burns.

“Fifty percent of my aunt’s body was burned. My aunt cried (she wanted) to die, because it was so painful.”

While the bomb left his aunt permanently disfigured, she is still alive at 96, and Dairiki continues to share her experience.

Plagued By Stigma
Seiko Fujimoto was three years old and a little more than a mile away from the epicenter of the blast. She said she moved to Hiroshima from the neighboring city of Kure, which was a major naval shipyard city that was firebombed prior to the atomic bombing, in early August — moving in with relatives. She was playing with her pet dog when the U.S. dropped the bomb.

Seiko Fujimoto holds a photo of her and her two younger siblings, taken just months before her brother passed away. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

“I was watching something coming down — that I remember — like a balloon or something,” said the San Francisco Japantown resident, now 78 and the executive director of the Japanese Benevolent Society of California.

All she can remember after that was the fierce wind from the blast.

Nothing from her aunt and uncle’s house survived, Fujimoto said. She said her family never found her aunt, uncle or cousin’s bodies either. Fujimoto and her younger brother Yoshikatsu, then just a year and-a-half old, were suddenly on their own. They were taken to a hospital in the aftermath and later reunited with their parents who were living away from Hiroshima.

The family moved to Tokyo.

Fujimoto’s parents warned her not to reveal that she had been in Hiroshima during the war.

“We couldn’t understand why, but that was the word from my parents,” she said.

Years later, Fujimoto’s high school friends warned her not to tell others that she was from Hiroshima. Her friends were afraid she would be unable to get married, due to the predominant fear that children of survivors would suffer major disabilities or deformations.

‘You Suffer All (Your) Life’
The Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka lived to the north of Nagasaki and was eight months old when the United States dropped the second bomb. Hanaoka and his family did not immediately suffer from the blast, and he has no personal recollection of the devastation the city faced.

Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka speaks at a protest against nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2019. photo courtesy of Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka

Regardless, the bombing left him with survivor’s guilt after both his mother and older sister died of leukemia when he was six years old.

“As far back as I can remember, they were both in bed, looking very pale, very weak — I think the leukemia does that to you. So I don’t remember my mother up and around, she was always in bed,” Hanaoka, 75, said. “When she died, I was in the first grade. My brother came to fetch me, and I remember running across the schoolyard with my brother, crying. When I got home, everybody was there crying.”

Hanaoka’s father, who was overseas in Taiwan during the war, feared for his family’s health. He asked doctors how the rest of his children would fare after Hanaoka’s mother and sister passed away. A doctor said the six-year-old boy had four years to live if he had been exposed to the same amount of radiation as his mother and sister.

Hanaoka said he could not process how he only had four years left to live. He said he was shocked and depressed. He grew withdrawn and could not speak for several months.

“And then my 10th birthday came and went without an incident. In a way, I was relieved, but at the same time, the feelings of guilt — like, why did such good people like my mother and my sister have to die, and I — good for nothing — am still alive. And I was almost always apologizing for being alive. … I learned it was quite common to have that kind of feeling. It’s called survivor’s guilt.”

Among the five siblings, Hanaoka said his second eldest brother also succumbed to a mysterious illness at age 24 or 25. Hanaoka asked the doctor if the illness was related to radiation poisoning.

“You never can tell. That’s the thing about radiation sickness,” the Daly City, Calif. resident said. “Even though I was spared from the initial impact of the … explosion of the atom bomb, I was suffering mentally and socially all my life. It never left me, 75 years later. So I would say, nuclear bombs don’t simply kill you, but make you suffer all (your) life.”

Hanaoka, a retired United Methodist minister, joined other hibakusha and activists, such as Geri Handa, to form Friends of Hibakusha in 1981. Hanaoka first became involved with other hibakusha he met through Kanji Kuramoto, chair of the National Atomic Bomb Survivors Committee.

Friends of Hibakusha worked to support the health and welfare of hibakusha and also preserved their stories through oral histories.

“Because of their age and frailty, many of them are passing,” Handa said. “I think it’s really important to have (the oral histories), if they are the last witnesses.”

“One of the things I learned from them — very common among them — was the fact that, they all felt that those who died immediately after the bombing were the lucky ones,” Hanaoka said. “They were spared of the long sufferings, pains and nightmares and so forth.”

Fujimoto said she lamented her younger brother’s death in 1949 and how he was never able to enjoy life. Her memory of how he wanted to eat watermelon has kept Fujimoto from eating any since his death.

Medical Missions
Friends of Hibakusha also worked with the Japanese government and Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association to conduct its biennial medical examinations of hibakusha in San Francisco. Started in 1977, the mission brings physicians specializing in radiation effects from Hiroshima every other year to conduct check-ups with survivors of the bombings.

At its peak, Dairiki said 200 survivors participated in the exams, but only 33 participated in San Francisco last year. Many of the patients have passed on due to age, and others have wondered how much their status as hibakusha has contributed to their ailments. Dairiki said he never had children. He wondered if that was due to the radiation from the bomb.

Hanaoka said he wondered if he would die every time he got ill.

“I’ve always wondered, every time I get sick, could this be it? But I’ve lived long enough to be at my age, so I must have had a constitution that resisted,” he said. Today, Hanaoka said he suffers from diabetes, a common illness among hibakusha.

While Fujimoto has no definitive health issues, she said she tires easily and suffers from dizziness, as does her son.

With few remaining survivors and uncertainty ahead, Dairiki, Hanaoka and Fujimoto reflected on the 75th anniversary of the bombings. Hanaoka called nuclear weapons an “evil that should not exist on the face of the earth.” The three survivors will participate in an online commemoration Aug. 9, presented by the Friends of Hibakusha and the Nichi Bei Foundation, in collaboration with the Japanese American Religious Federation and other organizations. Although Handa wished the commemoration could be held in-person, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic raised concerns for the health of participants, and the survivors in particular.

“As this year marks the 75th anniversary, it is more important than ever to reassess how far we have come and where we are going and the legacy we want to leave for future generations,” Handa wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The issue is even more dire today, according to Hanaoka.

“I think we really need to emphasize, we’re not talking about nuclear weapons anymore, we’re talking about thermal nuclear weapons,” he said.

“Hiroshima, Nagasaki bombs were only 15 kilotons or 20 kilotons. We’re now talking about two megatons, three megatons. That means three million tons of TNT.”

Dairiki likened the atomic bomb to a “poison bomb,” with how the radiation lingers in the body to wreak havoc years after the initial blast.

“We are generally killing ourselves with the use of the atomic bomb,” Dairiki said.

Fujimoto said it is up to the next generation to learn about the horrors of the atomic bombs.

“We will tell you what happened, as much as we could, but from there — to make peace in this world — it’s your job. It will take a long time, but it’s your job,” Fujimoto said.

— Kenji G. Taguma contributed to this story.

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