Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard


Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War
by Susan Southard
Souvenir Press (2015)
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0670025626

Review by Elizabeth Ingrams

At a recent event I attended at the Daiwa Foundation, someone asked how it was that widespread ignorance about the dangers of nuclear warfare had managed to arise. Many of the answers are to be found in Susan Southard’s magnificent, some might say, epic, work based on the official and unofficial history of the second atomic-bombed city, Nagasaki. Here on 9 August 1945, upwards of 70,000 people died and tens of thousands more have died since from the effects of the atomic bombing.

Nagasaki is a lot smaller than Hiroshima, with an estimated population of 240,000 at the time of the atomic bombings. Yet its history is perhaps more significant in the story of Japan’s relations with the West. A cultural melting pot ever since the Portuguese – including St Francis Xavier – arrived in the 16th century, the city is probably the only one in Japan which could have been described as at all multi-ethnic. It has always been allowed some, if limited, foreign trade and included Western, Chinese and Southeast Asian residents, up until 1941 when foreigners were expelled.

Southard’s work joins an increasing number of books in fiction and non-fiction about the enormity of suffering undergone and delivered by the Japanese more than 70 years ago. As a theatre maker and a former resident of Yokohama, who first visited Nagasaki around 40 years ago, Southard’s motivation to research the story of the hibakusha (meaning literally ‘explosion affected person’) was crystallised when she met with Taniguchi Sumiteru, the president of one of the Nagasaki survivors’ ‘hibakusha’ organizations, in 1986. Taniguchi was then at the beginning of his career as a worldwide spokesperson for the hibakusha. Last year, aged 87, he could be seen live on NHK World speaking out against the revisions of the peace constitution in front of Prime Minister Abe at the 9 August Peace Memorial Ceremony.

Southard’s first interview with Taniguchi, gave her insight into the scale of suffering and the silence surrounding it. It is telling that of the many hibakusha in Nagasaki, only 40 were kataribe, or public witnesses, when Southard was working there. Southard, as a US citizen, was concerned that the US had, in her words, ‘trampled on’ the rights of the Japanese in the Post-war period of occupation (1945-1952). One of her motivations was to illuminate the ‘mushroom cloud’ of misinformation, censorship, denial and counter-denial by historians on both sides of the Pacific.

Southard moves expertly between the life stories of the survivors she has interviewed (Doh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Yoshida Katsuji, Wada Koichi and Taniguchi Sumiteru and others whose stories she has read) and the history of the end of World War Two. She claims in her introduction, that her aim is to ‘bring coherence’ to the chaotic nature of hibakusha stories, which has been exacerbated by the absence of serious research in to the life stores of those affected by ‘whole body radiation’ over time.

The US withdrew press and publication freedom in Japan from 1945-49; all film, photo, medical records, and written archives were shipped to the US and had to be reassembled decades later. Japanese scientific research on the atomic bombings was unpublished even up to 1952. Official US censorship was also combined with unofficial Japanese stigmatization of radiation sufferers, at a time when Japan was still licking the wounds of defeat.

The book covers events leading up to the dropping of the atomic bombs in the US – Truman’s decision to drop the bomb and the accompanying misgivings of scientists, journalists and generals, including Eisenhower – as well as the Japanese story. We read about the total militarisation of Japanese society, the kokutai (national militarisation of society), the much-hated secret police and peace preservation laws; the desire for peace but weakness of the Emperor and the divisions among the ‘big six’ in Japan’s war cabinet in discussions around surrender in July and August 1945. Some may be surprised by the fact that the Soviet incursion into Manchuria and Kuril islands on 8 August played a larger role in final surrender discussions than either of the atomic bombs. This history, drawn from recent research, is now becoming the accepted view although it still does not make it into either the Japanese or US official version of surrender.

‘Now, to be A-bombed, [there] is nothing really abstract in that’ wrote Oyama Takami; and Southard’s advantage in discussing the history is to keep it closely anchored to what can be seen through the eyes of the survivors, as well as the POWs and other visitors to Nagasaki in the aftermath of the bomb. Not wanting to be drawn into the game of blame and counter-blame which still accompanies historical discussions about World War Two, Southard brings the hibakusha stories to life through face-to-face interviews, photographic portraits from youth to old age, as well as life histories recounted in families, radio and TV interviews and official and private publications.

In an interview, Southard confessed that the research itself had a traumatic effect on her and indeed, to miss reading this book is to miss being traumatised by the massacre that occurred at Nagasaki. If you do not read it, you will miss eye-witness accounts of the hibakusha trailing their flesh like rags, arms outstretched like blind people; of parents and children, colleagues and friends, preparing fires to burn their loved ones’ corpses to ashes before succumbing to radiation sickness themselves; of the Urakami valley (the bomb’s unintended target) smelling of charred human flesh for months; of the place of ‘tears turning black’ where they fell and of ‘no birdsong’ even when the Allied troops arrived three months’ later; of hibakusha captured on film, days and weeks after the bombing, mouths stretched open calling for their mothers as they died; of mothers giving birth to dead children in the ‘graveyard’ that was the ruins, only to be levelled with bulldozers by American troops weeks later; of doctors treating thousands of untreatable victims despite their revulsion; of local ‘remedies’ for hibakusha – persimmon tea, engine oil, vitamin shots and hot springs.

However you will also miss out on the extraordinary motivation of these five survivors and their predecessors to find decency and respect, let alone the words to tell the stories: to overcome discrimination or the desire to kill oneself. Taniguchi, for instance, begged nurses to let him die rather than treat him until he could move, which took three years.

Many more hibakusha suffered the guilt of survival (when so many had died) and the constant fear of cancer (to which many have succumbed); they also cared for family members who resented them for surviving when others died. The book’s black-and-white inset photographs bear witness to an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit alone. They start with the atomic desert of 1945, with pictures of mutilated sponge-like faces and bodies of hibakusha and continue to contemporary portraits of the survivors speaking at international conferences, constructing memorials for the dead; running peace NGOs.

It took thousands of survivors’ accounts, movies and books to counter the cover-up of holocaust denial. These five survivors perceive the same counter-narrative is needed before the atom-bombed cities are lost in the ‘hole of history’; for them there is no enemy apart from war itself; they want to promote a 21st century which is based on compassion and sensitivity rather than self-destruction. They are true internationalists who find that with the whisper of life they have been granted – although the verb they use is the ambiguous ikasareta (to ‘be allowed’ or ‘made to live’) – they want to help others understand. It is hard to think of another book like this, which conveys the emotional detail of how the stories are told, not only then but now. The only comparable book is perhaps John Hersey’s well-known Hiroshima. Emotional details leap from the page: like that of a survivor ‘choking’ as they recall a story; another tells us that at night when she takes a bath, the scenes of seventy years before still recur to her.

Some criticisms can be mentioned: Southard’s view is that democracy and a peace constitution were ‘forced’ on the Japanese when in fact millions were relieved when the war ended and embraced the occupation as it brought progress and democracy; it could also be argued that additional discrimination was levelled against the hibakusha of Urakami valley because many were Catholics and some were burakumin, the Japanese ‘untouchables’. These criticisms aside, this great contribution to atomic bomb research could not be timelier or more welcome.

Elizabeth Ingrams is a researcher on the lives of the hibakusha of Hiroshima: Her book Japan Through Writers’ Eyes was republished in 2015 by Eland, price £12.99, ISBN: 978-1906011-08-6,

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