Beyond the Ruins of Hiroshima
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.