Every day, an average of two dozen people fade from the ranks of those who were there when the world changed forever. They had survived the only nuclear weapons employed in combat: Japanese men and women who endured the atomic bombs that American planes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end World War II.
Hibakusha, they are called in Japanese – bomb-affected persons. They had the misfortune to be in those cities or nearby when the bombs fell or soon thereafter. Inevitably, the survivors are dying, at a rate now of roughly 9,000 a year. The most recent Japanese government figures, from March, put their numbers at 136,682, or a bit more than one-third what they were at their peak decades ago.
The 75th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are at hand, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, respectively. They offer an opportunity for Retro Report, which reflects on past events in hopes of better understanding the present, to examine the known long-term health effects of the bombings. Those consequences are still studied closely by medical researchers, notably under the aegis of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint Japanese and American group based in Hiroshima.
The most gravely afflicted by the bombs died at once or soon thereafter. Estimates range as high as 130,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki, among them thousands of Koreans who had been brought over as forced laborers at a time when Japan occupied the Korean peninsula.
(Nagasaki’s fate was karmic in a sense. The primary target that Aug. 9 was Kokura, a once-independent city that is now part of an industrial center in western Japan called Kitakyushu. But the crew of the American B-29 bomber dubbed Bock’s Car was under orders to have a clear view of the city. Kokura was obscured by layers of smoke and haze. After giving the city several passes and with fuel running low, the Americans turned southwest toward their secondary target: Nagasaki.)
It is believed that another 140,000 people died from bomb-related effects between 1945 and 1950, many having shown symptoms of severe exposure to radiation, including burns, nausea, general weakness, hair loss and disfiguring scar tissue. The leukemia rate for hibakusha was sky-high back then. By the mid-1960s, though, it had leveled off to that found in the general population.
Without question, people who were exposed to the atomic blasts and the radioactive fallout were far more prone to various cancers than other Japanese, especially of the thyroid, colon, breasts, lungs, stomach, bone marrow and urinary tract. Hiroshima and Nagasaki children grew up to be, on average, an inch or two shorter and a couple of pounds lighter than their contemporaries, according to a 1975 study in The American Journal of Public Health. The effects were especially severe on those who had been in utero, with some born with intellectual disabilities or with a small head circumference.
A little more than half of the hibakusha who remain still live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To qualify for their status, they had to have been in either city within two weeks of the bombings and no more than two kilometers – about a mile and a quarter – from the hypocenter, the point on the ground directly below the explosion. In Hiroshima it was 1,902 feet in the air, in Nagasaki 1,650 feet.
Especially with cancers, much depended on where people happened to have been. How close were they to the hypocenter? Were they out in the open? Or did they perhaps have relatively good fortune and stood behind, say, a brick wall?
As the decades passed, cancer rates among hibakusha proved to be about 10 percent higher than those in the Japanese population at large. But setting cancers aside, researchers have not found much to separate survivors from other Japanese. Mortality rates have turned out to be essentially the same for a range of other diseases, from tuberculosis to circulatory troubles, from heart failure to ailments of the central nervous system.
There is scant evidence that exposure to radiation speeded up the survivors’ rate of aging. The average age of hibakusha is now 83.3 years, not far below the current life expectancy of 84.6 years for all Japanese. As for the next generations, apart from those who were fetuses in August 1945, the genetic mutations that many once feared have not materialized. Chromosomal breaks endured by hibakusha do not seem to have been passed on to their children and grandchildren.
That said, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, as a group, lived lives often marked by mental stress. A simple cold, a nosebleed, a feeling of fatigue – they would always wonder if this or that malady was routine or the consequence of exposure to radiation.
Psychologically, many are delicate. For years, they tended to be shunned by other Japanese. Their children often found that a fear factor doomed their marriage prospects. While the social stigma waned over time, concerns about possible discrimination led some Japanese to never acknowledge having been in or near the bombed cities.
Of course, the lessons of Japan go only so far to help us understand the potential perils of today. The uranium-235 bomb dropped on Hiroshima, codenamed “Little Boy,” and the plutonium-239 device at Nagasaki, “Fat Man,” were primitive compared with the destructive potential of modern nuclear arsenals.
Still, it might be a mistake to paint a picture of hibakusha that is entirely bleak. I am mindful of what Dr. Kiyoshi Kuramoto told me back in the 1980s, when I was based in Tokyo and had occasion to visit Hiroshima several times. Dr. Kuramoto was deputy director of what was then known as the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Hospital. Though he had never applied for formal status, he qualified as a hibakusha himself, having gone to Nagasaki in mid-August 1945 to treat victims.
“When the press writes about the survivors, the hard and tragic aspects are likely to be stressed,” he told me. “I do not think that correctly reflects their lives.” He continued:
“A great number of victims have passed away. But the others live, and I think it is important that they have lived and enjoyed life, even though carrying a heavy load on their backs. We must not forget that aspect of the survivors. They experienced the joy of living.”
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. Subscribe here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
A long Times piece that I wrote in 1985 exploring the known long term physical effects of the bomb:
A piece that I did back then on Kokura, the town that wasn’t bombed:
A 2016 piece in Genetics magazine on how the long term effects were not as dire as some had thought:
Obit of Kermit Beahan, who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki: