On 6 August, it is 70 years since the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. 30 years ago I and photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen went there to look into what the military term ‘collateral damage’ means in the real world. I still keep my notes from those disturbing encounters with human beings, whose fate was labelled as ‘acceptable loss’ to the military strategists, who devised the strike. One of them was Yasue Yoshida, a 57 year old woman. Her testimony deserves to be remembered still today.
At first glance, Yasue Yoshida looks like most Japanese women – a decade younger than her actual age, 57 years.
She gracefully enters her living room from the minute kitchen and gets down on her knees the traditional Japanese way and approaches us, offering a lacquer tray with green tea and cookies.
As she is getting within a meter’s distance, her youthful appearance becomes a deception.The thick white make-up can no longer hide the web of tiny scars all on her face, on her arms – on all visible parts of her skin.
“I was only 17 years old in 1945, and they told me I was so beautiful. There was a big army base in Hiroshima. I really had a hard time keeping the young soldiers at bay.
Sometimes I said to myself: If only I had been fat and ugly, I would not be chased like the cattle in the fields. Then came the day of the Bomb. It changed everything in a flash. For years I longed to have my face back and all the young men that used to bother me.”
Yasue worked as a clerk at a tobacco factory two kilometers from downtown Hiroshima. She had just arrived at work, when the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, named after the pilot’s mother, prepared the final descent over Hiroshima. At 08:16 am Japanese time the Bomb detonated, killing 80.000 people in a flash. Tens of thousands of fatal victims were to follow – some from their initial injuries and others for years to come from the effects of radiation.
“I was working a few meters from the windows. The impact of the blast sent thousands of little pieces through the air and into my body.I was lying unconscious next to my desk, when the rescue team arrived, they later told me,” Yasue quietly recalls, offering small, decorated cookies with downcast eyes and a little smile.
Almost cremated alive
“They thought I was dead and carried me to the nearest fire, where bodies were burned. Luckily, I woke up screaming, or I would have been thrown into the flames alive.”
The doctors managed to stabilise Yasue and brought her through the infections that followed in her damaged body.
“It took me a long time to recover from my injuries, and only very slowly I started coming back to life – a new life which was a living nightmare. Not only because of the pains coming back in violent waves. My scars were swollen and red. I looked like a monster. Children got scared and started to cry, when they saw me in the street.”
Saved by faith
“Already then, I was a devoted Catholic. If it was not for my belief in God, I think I would have committed suicide like so many other Hibakusha (Atomic bomb victims), who could not cope with the pain and fears after the Bomb.”
Yasue soon realised that the doctors had only managed to remove the visible glass pieces in the top layers of her skin.
“Even these days – 40 years after the bomb – new pieces of glass keep emerging from my body. In the past two years alone, I have been in surgery three times.
Last year I got an infection in my forehead. This is usually a sign, and the doctors once again located a buried piece of glass.”
Yasue holds up a jar, which is half full of glass pieces, found in her body over the years.
The lucky ones died
In 1968 Yasue was awarded the maximum disability pension of approximately USD 1.000 a month. In addition she can apply for free medical care and refund of her expenses for medicine.
“Whenever I need surgery, I have to get approval in advance to obtain compensation for my expenses. I get so depressed, while I wait. Sometimes I cannot help thinking that my father and my younger brother were much luckier than me.
They were conscripted by the army as forced labor and worked in the city center. They simply evaporated in a flash and did not feel anything.“
For many years after the bomb she suffered from discrimination like many other survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“It was impossible for me to find a husband and create a family, even after my scars faded. People in Japan were – and many still are – afraid to marry any Hibakusha. In the postwar years, there were many cases of children with birth defects and terminal cancers among the survivors. We were treated like the lepers in India.”
“In the early 1950’ies I met a man, and we developed a very close relationship. I was so happy the day he proposed to me. When his parents found out that I was Hibakusha, they forced him to cancel the wedding.”
At last, in 1960 I married the man, who is still my husband. He is a war invalid from the battles in Burma against the British soldiers. We both suffer from the horrors of war, and we have managed to help each other to get on in life.”
“We wanted very much to have our own children, but we were so scared that something would be wrong with them. Finally, we decided to take the risk.
In 1961 my daughter was born. As soon as I managed to get out of bed, I went around to all our family members, even the neighbours. I wanted everybody to see that our girl was a normal, healthy child. Three years later, our son was born. Till this day, they are both healthy, apart from some allergy.”
Living with death
“Ever since the Bomb I have been living with death next to me. I have tried to raise my children in a way so they were independent of me as early as possible. I have known so many people who died young due to their exposure to the radiation. I sometimes wonder, why I have been allowed to live so long.”
Yasue lifts up her black hair to show me the white roots.
“My hair became white, when I was thirty. It happened after an acute appendicitis sent me into surgery. I almost died because I could only handle very little loss of blood. The doctors told me already then that my intestines looked like they belonged to a much older woman.
These days, I do not have the courage to ask any questions, when I go to my medical check-ups every six months at the hospital,” Yasue says, her voice trembling.
“It is still very difficult for me to talk about my life as Hibakusha. For more than 25 years I never said a word and I never attended the annual memorial services for the victims.
In 1981, our Pope visited Hiroshima and he encouraged us to speak up. I began accepting invitations to talk to schoolchildren. In the beginning it was unbearable. I broke down and cried in front of them.Then I started receiving letters from some of the children. They wrote that the meeting with me made them understand, why we must do everything we can to oppose nuclear weapons. These letters give me the strength to continue.
Please do not misunderstand me. We, the Hibakusha do not need you to feel sorry for us. All we want is a future without fear of a nuclear war. This is the only real compensation for all our suffering.”
For 6 years after our meeting Yasue and I exchanged Christmas greetings. She always enclosed her own hand made minute paper dolls. Then she became quiet.
Here is what Wikipedia says in July 2015 about the Hibakusha:
The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who fall into one of the following categories: within a few kilometers of the hypocenters of the bombs; within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; exposed to radiation from fallout; or not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of these categories. As of March 31, 2014, 192,719 hibakusha were recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan. The government of Japan recognizes about 1% of these as having illnesses caused by radiation.
Hibakusha are entitled to government support. They receive a certain amount of allowance per month. About 1%, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.
The memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki contain lists of the names of the hibakusha who are known to have died since the bombings. Updated annually on the anniversaries of the bombings, as of August 2014 the memorials record the names of more than 450,000 hibakusha; 292,325 in Hiroshima and 165,409 in Nagasaki.