Barack Obama visited Hiroshima this week, the first American president to do so. That’s something. He met and listened to hibakusha — the survivors of the explosion whose bodies and lives were re-shaped by the atomic bomb. That’s something, too.
He did not, however, apologise for America dropping the bomb. That might have been a step too far. It was more manageable to talk vaguely of lessons learned and moralities refined than to break faith with the central tenet of American, and indeed Allied, belief regarding the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: that the dropping of those bombs constituted the single factor that forced Japan to surrender and abandon a war to which they were committed with an ideological ferocity unreachable by military attrition.
There’s no arguing with that central tenet, because it was tattooed into the oral history of the Second World War from the date of the Japanese surrender. The Nazis surrendered on May 7, 1945, but Japan fought on. The Potsdam Declaration was made in July, 1945, threatening dire consequences for continuation of the war. Japan fought on. The Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. Japan fought on. Three days later, the Americans did the same to Nagasaki. Japan surrendered within days.
In the months after the surrender of the Nazis, the rest of the world learned slowly of the death camps, with their piles of skeletal dead. Similarly, in the months after the surrender of Japan, the rest of the world learned something of what it was like when — as the song recorded — the bomb arrived, “shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death” bringing death in “a blinding flash of hellish heat”.
They learned of children incinerated, leaving a shadow of themselves on a nearby wall, of grievously burned and irradiated victims throwing themselves into rivers in a desperate search for something to cool their ruined skin.
They learned of the spectacle, but were constantly reminded of the fact that the bombs had resulted in surrender, and for the most part, that was enough. Little interest was evinced by the Allies in offering co-ordinated free medical treatment to bomb victims. Indeed, the very garnering and sharing of information on the topic was deliberately constrained by the occupying forces.
At the first meeting of the Special Commttee for the Investigation of A-Bomb Damages, for example, the person in charge “served notice that further surveys and study of A-Bomb matters by the Japanese would require permission from GHQ and publication of A-bomb data was thenceforth prohibited”.
In other words, let’s not go looking for damage, let’s not study it, and above all, let’s not tell anybody else about it. Film footage was confiscated and filming prohibited. Even when civil servants on the ground did reports about the needs, particularly, of female victims, those reports were suppressed.
Some non-Japanese reporters told some of the truth, despite the best efforts of officialdom. One of them was John Hersey, an American reporting for the New Yorker. His reports made it into book form, and for the first time, Americans and others learned of the horrific nature of the damage done to innocent individuals.
Hersey talked to men like Dr Tomin Harada, an expert in plastic surgery from Hiroshima, who was studying in Tokyo at the time when the bomb was dropped, and who hastened home to serve in his home town. What he found was that roughly 80% of the survivors had keloid scars. Keloid scarring involves the raising and twisting of the skin as it heals over the lesion, so that survivors who were burned and irradiated in the face hardly looked human at all.
“I don’t know how to describe her face,” Harada later wrote of the first victim he treated. “The entire surface was like some rough reddish earthenware. The nose was practically nonexistent except for two small holes... The shrunken mouth was shut tight as if bolted. There were no eyebrows except for their distorted vestiges arching up improbably towards the brows. The eyelids folded outwards, making blinking an impossibility.”
The girl in question said her face was so horrifying that she couldn’t look at it in a mirror without feeling sick to her stomach.
Complicating the horrific appearance caused by keloids was the limitations in movement they caused. Burn victims ended up with clawed unusable hands. Others could not walk far or, in some cases, at all, because their feet looked — and acted — as if they had been tightly bound using electrical cord. An additional misery, particularly for the young girls who suffered most from keloids (they affected children and elderly people less) was the shunning factor. They became sub-human, no longer acceptable to be seen by members of the public, demonstrably unfit for marriage. This in turn led to isolation, desolation and dereliction.
One Japanese clergyman created a prayer group for what became known as ‘the Hiroshima Maidens’ the girls grievously damaged by the bomb. The writers organisation PEN got involved, as did Norman Cousins, an influential American editor. The end result was that a large group of Hiroshima Maidens were brought to the US for corrective plastic surgery. The girls lived, in between their sequential surgeries, in the home of neighbouring Quakers.
The surgery, in many cases, was successful, although the results were not uniformly beneficial to their appearance and functioning.
For public consumption, the story was cast as giving the girls an appearance which would allow them to be acceptable as marriage objects when they returned to Japan. No mention was ever made of any other value attaching to their tragic lives. No mention was ever made, either, of the fact that the number vouchsafed this plastic surgery was the tiniest proportion of those scarred for life. Assuredly, no mention was made of the fact that, for the most part, they were converts to Christianity, and therefore, one must assume, perceived as being particularly worthy of treatment.
Partly because of language, partly because the girls were firmly in role as passive recipients of goodwill on the part of those involved, their voices are not strikingly present in any of the accounts of the Hiroshima Maidens.
An exception was the girl who, post-surgery, told a journalist that she was glad that America had dropped the Atomic bomb on her home city, because it had ended the war. This comment fit so neatly into the established narrative of the West that it could have carried its own QED.
One of the few people to cut through the narrative of justified action followed by generous charity — the narrative that underpins Obama’s verbal imprecision in his Hiroshima visit — was Norman Cousins who always said his involvement was based essentially on guilt. “I found it difficult to digest the fact that the United States was the first country in history to drop the atomic bomb on human beings,” he wrote.
Little interest was evinced by the Allies in offering medical treatment to bomb victims