Beyond the Ruins of Hiroshima

Jacques Hymans

Seventy-five years ago, on 6 August 1945, an American warplane destroyed the city of Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb. Over the following five months, 140,000 people died. The surviving 210,000 came to be known in Japanese as hibakusha, ‘bombed people’. A second atomic bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki on 9 August, leaving 73,000 dead and 200,000 hibakusha.

In 1967, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton published a major study of the hibakusha entitled Death in Life. Lifton argued that the hibakusha felt such severe survivor guilt that they wished they had died, too, and even thought of themselves as being already dead.

In her 1999 book Hiroshima Traces, the anthropologist Lisa Yoneyama describes the hibakusha’s intense relationship with the dead differently from Lifton’s ‘death in life’. Yoneyama sees the hibakusha as giving the bomb’s victims life after death. She writes that the hibakusha have developed ‘testimonial practices’ that can be compared to ‘a shamanistic ritual that summons dead souls’, to ‘resurrect the deceased and endow them with voices’.

Beyond the Mushroom Cloud, a 2012 study by the ethicist Yuki Miyamoto, supports Yoneyama’s interpretation. The testimony of the hibakusha, Miyamoto writes, ‘draws strength from the dead to resist and unsettle the conditions of this world, replacing them with an evolving vision of a different world – a world bound not by the image of the mushroom cloud, but by a sympathy for others that knows no earthly bounds.’

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony is being held before a much smaller crowd this year because of Covid-19, but millions will still see it on television or online. The hibakusha have achieved a remarkable feat of political jiujitsu. They have turned their bombed cities and bombed selves into powerful agents of peace.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. The Nobel Lecture was given by the hibakusha and ICAN campaigner Setsuko Thurlow. ‘To all in this hall and all listening around the world,’ she said, ‘I repeat those words that I heard called to me in the ruins of Hiroshima: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! See the light? Crawl towards it.”’ Since then, the treaty has been ratified by 40 nations; ten more, and it will enter into force.


  • 6 August 2020 at 7:23pm
    Mark McBride says:
    I cannot help but see the bombing of Nagasaki, coming only 72 hours after Hiroshima, as perhaps the biggest war crime in world history. Is it reasonable to think that three days is enough time for an entire nation to decide, once and for all, that it will surrender unconditionally? Indeed it is not.

    • 10 August 2020 at 11:11am
      XopherO says: @ Mark McBride
      I agree, but there is more to it I think. It is obvious that it was always intended to drop two bombs, and the decision to bomb Nagasaki in the ensuing confusion after Hiroshima within such a short time was to get it done before the surrender. Why? It was a test of a completely untested version using plutonium rather than uranium - a test on real humans which was a part of the decision to bomb both cities - a less harmful 'demonstration' was proposed to Truman, but ruled out by Groves and Oppenheimer without giving compelling reasons. This explains why the Nagasaki bomb was not dropped on a minor target. The testing on humans was crucial in their eyes in justifying the millions spent (Groves) and the victory of science (Oppenheimer). It is reputed that when junior scientists protested Enrico Fermi replied 'Don't give me your conscientious scruples, the thing's superb physics'. Whatever the other arguments over Hiroshima, the destruction of Nagasaki was cynical, savage and revoltingly hubristic.

  • 10 August 2020 at 6:59am
    wse9999 says:
    Yes well.
    The slippery slope.
    Started maybe 1874 Taiwan.

  • 10 August 2020 at 12:11pm
    bblacky says:
    There will apparently never be a resolution of the "Was it necessary to drop an atomic weapon?" question. That grave philosophical matter is being discussed by thinkers two generations removed from the Americans who went to war in the Pacific after being attacked, and for whom there is no real stake.
    As I see it, the battle of Okinawa (among whose citizens there is still considerable resentment of their treatment by mainland Japanese) was a deciding factor, and showed very clearly that a fanatically stubborn military dictatorship was willing to sacrifice the lives of millions of ordinary Japanese in resisting a land invasion. They lied to the Okinawans, telling them of the atrocities the Americans would wreak on average citizens, forcing them to commit suicide, often by jumping off cliffs. The stubbornness of a puffed-up, self-agrandizing leadership, personalized by the likes of the contemptible war criminal Yoshio Kodama, would never have surrendered. Events around the Imperial Palace, when they smuggled out the platter containing the Imp's squeaky-voiced surrender soliloquy, are ample evidence.

    Folks needed a wake-up call. Unfortunately the ones who got it were the average stiffs who suffer in any war. The profiteers and war criminals came out of the deal smelling like roses (Kakuei Tanaka, Yoshio Kodama, Masanobu Tsuji). Started working for the Americans, making good money and carrying on their criminal dealings.

  • 11 August 2020 at 8:40pm
    Robert Pringle says:
    Congratulations on an interesting commentary from which I learnt much. I also agree 100% with Mark McBride. And this is not just the benefit of hindsight. My father, then deputy editor of The Listener, wrote an impassioned protest at the US/UK action as a betrayal of everything we had fought the war to defend - civilisation itself. He scorned the lack of any response from Geoffrey Fisher, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Our moral leader had, as his clerk explained, "gone into hiding" - 'a favourite posture of the Church of England in moments of moral crisis.' (See David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, p 84)

  • 12 August 2020 at 7:38am
    Graucho says:
    The motives behind the decision to drop the two bombs were no doubt questionable. One thing which was probably not discussed, but mattered to many was how many more allied POWs would die from starvation, malaria, dysentery and beatings during weeks of protracted negotiations for a Japanese surrender. Personally I would rather they had dropped the bomb on the emperor and his war cabinet. Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys. Tecumseh Sherman's description of war is alas an eternal truth.

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