Seventy years ago this Sunday, on August 9, 1945, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, obliterating much of it and killing 74,000 people, mostly civilians. It was only the second time in history an atomic bomb had been used as a weapon. (Read about Hiroshima, the first target of an atomic bomb, 50 years later.)
In Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard follows the lives of five hibakusha (survivors) who escaped the firestorm and through extraordinary courage and resilience went on to live happy, fulfilled lives.
Speaking from her home in Arizona, she talks about the battle for the truth over what happened in Nagasaki; how square dancing helped heal the wounds of war; and why the survivors no longer harbor feelings of animosity towards Americans.
Yours is the first book to tell this story. Why has it taken so long?
Some people may know about Hiroshima, but they don’t know about Nagasaki. They say, “Oh, there was a second bombing?” Many people also don’t know that people survived the bombings. (Read about a bonsai that survived the Hiroshima bombing.)
One of the reasons is that the bombs were kept top secret. Very few military leaders knew they existed, except for the people who were creating the bombs and those directly overseeing them. After the bombs were dropped, several factors, both in the U.S. and Japan, contributed to people not knowing the effects.
One was direct denial of any radiation effects by key U.S. military leaders like General Leslie Groves, General Thomas Farrell and the U.S. War Department. During the U.S. occupation of Japan, which lasted from 1945 to 1952, General Douglas MacArthur also instituted a strict press code banning “false or destructive criticism” of the Allied powers out of concern that too much anger could put the thousands of U.S. troops in Japan at risk.
General Groves and others promoted the idea that the Japanese were using the effects of the bomb as anti-American propaganda. So, the people of Japan, other than the people in the cities directly affected, didn’t know for years what was happening in their own country. There was medical censorship as well. Physicians working with the survivors weren’t allowed to publish studies or findings of what was happening.
They also didn’t want the decision to use the bombs to be challenged in the U.S., by books like John Hersey’s Hiroshima. So President Truman and the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, made a concerted effort to publish articles justifying the use of the bombs, excluding any information about what happened to the people beneath the atomic clouds.
The justifications were so airtight that they became the dominant way of perceiving the decision to use the bombs on Japan: that the two bombs ended the war and saved a million American lives.
What made you want to write this book?
It has deep roots in my life. In high school, I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan and happened to go on a field trip to the southern island of Kyushu, where I visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. I stood next to my Japanese classmates as the only American and observed the destruction.
But the key event came in 1986, when one of the Nagasaki survivors, Taniguchi Sumiteru, who was 57 years old by then, came to Washington on a speaking tour. I went to hear him speak, then, through a series of unexpected events, his interpreter became unable to complete the last few days of his time in Washington, and I became his interpreter.
In between his presentations we spent hours together. I got to ask him questions and tried to grasp what his experience had been like; it was truly a horrific experience. His entire back had been burned off. From that time on I couldn’t get out of my mind what it would be like to have survived nuclear war.
Explain the term “hypocenter” and describe the destructive power of the blast in relation to it.
Contrary to what some of us might imagine, the bomb did not explode on the ground but about one-third of a mile above ground. The purpose was to maximize the blast force and the effect of the heat on the city because the blast and the heat would travel further.
The area directly beneath the blast is called the “hypocenter.” The heat on the ground directly below it was about 5,000 to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. For quite a long distance, buildings were pulverized and trees, plants, and animals were blown away or carbonized. It’s an unimaginable level of instantaneous destruction.
You recount the stories of five survivors. I want to focus on two of them: Dō-oh Mineko and Taniguchi. Where were they at the moment of impact and what happened to them?
Taniguchi was 16 years old at the time. He was delivering mail in the northwestern part of the valley on his bicycle. He was facing away from the blast a little over a mile away. He was thrown off his bicycle and although he didn’t know it at the time, because he was in a daze, his entire back was burned off. He also had severe burns on his arms and legs.
The earth was shaking but he was able to stand up. He gathered the mail he could still see. All the children that had been playing around him were dead. He wandered to a factory and some men carried him to a hillside where they laid him on his stomach. He lay there for two nights, dipping in and out of consciousness, while his grandfather searched for him.
Dō-oh was about three-fourths of a mile from the hypocenter, inside a Mitsubishi torpedo factory. The massive steel and concrete Mitsubishi factory collapsed on top of her and thousands of others. Remarkably, she was able to get up. She had a big gash in the back of her neck and was desperate to escape because fires were beginning to flare around her. She had to step over dead bodies to get to an embankment, where her father found her.
Tanaguchi’s ordeal is of almost biblical proportions. Tell us about his first few years after the bombing.
There were no hospitals or medical supplies in Nagasaki, so he was taken to a village outside Nagasaki with his grandfather and cared for in a very basic way for three months. He was finally taken to a naval hospital in Omura, 22 miles north of Nagasaki, where he finally began to get proper medical care.
He lay on his stomach in extraordinary agony for three years. As he wasn’t able to lie on his sides or his back, he got incredibly deep bedsores—so deep, that the doctors could see his internal organs, including his heart beating. He was finally released from the hospital on March 20, 1949, when he was 20 years old.
One of the more bizarre actions taken by the Americans after the bombing was to introduce square dancing. What was that all about?
It’s so crazy! And quite lovely in the end. It began in Nagasaki. The people assigned to lead the occupation efforts in Nagasaki were very sympathetic toward the suffering of the survivors and tried to find ways to help them. One night, the civilian education officer for the U.S. occupation in Nagasaki, Winfield Niblo, was at a dinner party with Japanese educators.
Afterwards there was a presentation of Japanese folk dancing. Niblo decided to present some American square dancing to add to the festivities. It caught on nationally to become a post-war American contribution to Japanese life.
One of the things that shocked me was the extent to which the hibakusha were discriminated against and mocked by their fellow Japanese. They were even called “tempura face.”
It was surprising to me as well. The children were made fun of and laughed at. Those who were disfigured, even after the economy recovered a decade later, had trouble getting jobs. Even those who had no physical disfigurement often kept their status as a hibakusha quiet. It made it difficult to get a job and their marriage prospects were almost completely eliminated. Anyone who found out they were hibakusha was afraid of the genetic effects that radiation would have on their children. Many of them married other hibakusha.
It took many years for the survivors to tell their stories. Why was it so difficult for them to go public and what changed their minds?
Recovering from nuclear war is a very long process—healthwise, psychologically and economically. Some lost every member of their family and all their friends. The survivors I write about were all in their teen years at the time of the bombing. It was something so extremely painful that they didn’t want to revisit it.
The people who did decide to speak out, including the five survivors I feature in my book, had very personal reasons. One told me that as he held his first granddaughter in his arms, he had a flashback of a baby’s charred body that he had to step over as he was helping in the relief effort. He suddenly realized I have to do something about this, I don’t want my beautiful granddaughter to ever experience what I experienced.
Together, he and other hibakusha are fighting to ensure that Nagasaki will be the last city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb.
How did the survivors feel towards the United States?
Each survivor is different. Two I know well had a lot of anger towards the U.S. for dropping the bomb and causing this suffering. Others were so preoccupied with survival and grief and trying to deal with the medical implications that they didn’t think about the Americans too much. They just had to survive. The five I know well no longer feel negatively toward Americans. They accept that it was the governments and militaries of each nation that waged war, not individuals.
Dō-oh’s story has a remarkable happy ending. Tell us about her afterlife in Tokyo.
Dō-oh lost all her hair after the bomb. It didn’t grow back for 10 years, so she remained in her house until she was 25 years old. Her father said she had to learn how to support herself as an adult.
Before the war, she had dreamed of being in fashion so she got a part time job in Nagasaki in a cosmetics shop and was eventually offered a job in Tokyo with that same company. Against her parents’ wishes and cultural norms, she went on her own to Tokyo and began a new life. She worked fiercely and over time rose in the ranks to become a Senior VP of Utena, one of Japan’s leading cosmetics companies. It was unheard of at that time for a woman to have such a high executive position with a corporation.
She then returned to Nagasaki for retirement. She was an artist and poet as well, and she created this beautiful work of art, with green stems and a purple flowering iris. In Japanese writing from the top right, down, she says, “Thank you for a good life.”
How did the time you spent with these survivors change your life, Susan?
It expanded my appreciation of human courage, resilience and strength. I also learned to appreciate the complexity of political and military actions and decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and how we respond and react to them.
I’ve been changed very profoundly by getting to know these people and being allowed to know the many difficult, intimate moments of their lives, which were split in half by nuclear war.