For Hiroshima survivor, 70th anniversary rekindles memories of terror, taboos
Published 07/08/2015 | 02:30
It was a warm summer morning, and five-year-old Yukiko Nakabushi was the first to arrive at nursery school. She sat playing quietly as she waited for her friends to come through the door. Except they never arrived.
Instead, at precisely 8.15am, she saw a sudden flash accompanied by a deafeningly loud bang - and in an instant, the world's first atomic bombing transformed the Japanese city of Hiroshima into a living hell.
Mrs Nakabushi (76) is one of the nation's remaining 183,519 survivors of the 1945 bombing - known as hibakusha - for whom the events of that exact moment are etched in their memories with haunting clarity.
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima attack and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, followed by Japan's Second World War surrender.
The devastation unleashed by the first wartime use of nuclear weapons is well documented: the attacks claimed an estimated 200,000 lives almost immediately, with the death toll continuing to rise over the decades due to radiation-related sickness and injuries.
The spotlight will be on prime minister Shinzo Abe and exactly what he says to mark August 15, the anniversary of the end of the war, amid concerns that he will trigger tension by diluting earlier wartime apologies.
With unease already growing between Japan and its neighbours China and South Korea over territorial disputes and wartime interpretations, Mr Abe will be aware of the weight of every word he utters.
For survivors such as Mrs Nakabushi, who now lives in the outskirts of Tokyo, the anniversary resurrects a catalogue of painful memories - from the horrifying injuries she witnessed to the death of her mother - alongside a strengthened resolve as she grows older to voice her opposition to nuclear warfare.
She attributes a string of fortuitous coincidences - the fact she was inside the kindergarten so was protected from radiation exposure, then managed to flee the building before it collapsed - to her survival, despite being only a mile from the centre of the blast.
Recalling the day of the bombing, she described how the next thing she could remember after the flash of light was standing by the remains of her home, opposite the kindergarten, watching her grandfather freeing her grandmother from the rubble.
Her mother was not so fortunate. The bomb exploded only half-a-mile from where she was working with neighbours and relatives, and she was instantly exposed.
"My mother suffered severe burns to the whole of her body, but she managed to return home," said Mrs Nakabushi.
"My grandfather told me that after my mother found out I was alive, she fell unconscious. Everyone told me that my mother headed home to find out if I was OK, despite her critical condition. I experienced her motherly love at a young age.
"We headed for the suburbs with my mother on a daihachi guruma (a two-wheeled cart) and I will never forget what I saw next. The city scenery was completely changed. The houses were gone and we saw hundreds of people with burns walking.
"They were covered in ash, from head to toe, their hair was standing on end and burnt skin was hanging from various parts of their bodies like used rags. It was like seeing an army of ghosts.
"'Water, water', they would say, but there was nothing we could do. We didn't have water ourselves. We crossed two bridges and what we saw was horrifying. Corpses and people still alive were being washed away."
The surviving family members eventually found refuge in a small shelter.
"The smell was terrible. Injured people were asking for water. But we were told not to give water because they would die after the first sip, which was true," said Mrs Nakabushi.
"The groans eventually faded and people died one after another. My mother died beside me, without me noticing, on August 8.
"She wasn't able to see my father or brother and was only 31 years old at the time.
"I know my uncle and great uncle died at the same place. But my mother's death was the most devastating. I was only five and it changed my life."
While the disaster's immediate aftermath was equally fraught, a general sentiment prevailed that the challenges unfolding were preferable to being at war, according to Mrs Nakabushi.
"To eat and live was our day-to-day mission and we had to get over our sad and harsh experiences," she said.
"Despite all the distress, I'm sure it wasn't just me that thought, 'It's better than war'."
Others were not so fortunate. For many, the battle to survive continued long after the bombs were dropped, the war came to an end and the shattered cities were rebuilt.
For in addition to the injuries and stress, many survivors - and later, their children - were stigmatised and rejected by Japan's deeply homogenous society as a result of their experiences.
Women suffered rejection from marriage partners fearful that they would not produce healthy babies, while employers also discriminated against hibakusha, making it difficult for them to return to the workforce.
Such a social stigma relating to radiation exposure has clearly not disappeared, as alarmingly reflected in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima crisis, when local residents were reportedly shunned from clinics and refugee camps for fear of "contaminating" others.
It is little surprise that during the decades that followed the 1945 atomic bombings, many survivors kept their taboo status as quiet as possible. (© Daily Telegraph, London)