The Hibakusha’s 75 Year Journey to Ban Nuclear Weapons

A nuclear attack is almost too horrific to imagine. But take a few minutes and try to walk in the footsteps of the hibakusha, the survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Follow their journey from 6 and 9 August 1945 through a lifetime of advocacy to eliminate nuclear weapons.
ICAN is grateful to the 1945 Project for allowing the use of photos and testimonies.

Imagine a blinding light. Then complete darkness. Silence. And then screams.

THE BOMBING

“I was three years old at the time of the bombing. I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness. I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told.”

Location: Nagasaki
Distance from hypocenter: 3.4km

Learn more from Yasujiro Tanaka

Maybe you crawl out of the rubble before it crushes you or maybe you are pulled out by an uncle, a neighbour, a stranger.  You open your eyes and witness something unlike you’ve ever seen before.

Your home, flattened. Your neighbour’s home, flattened. Your city, burning. Your families’, friends’, neighbours’, classmates’, coworkers’ bodies, burnt. Eyeballs hanging out of their sockets.

"Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air."

Location: Hiroshima
Distance from hypocenter: 1.8km

Learn more from Setsuko Thurlow

Your skin burns, you ache for cold water to relieve the pain.

You stumble through your torched hometown desperately looking for your family. You may find them. You may not.

“Suddenly, I felt an intense burning sensation on my face and arms, and tried to dunk my body into the bouka suisou. The water made it worse. I heard my mother’s voice in the distance. ‘Fujio! Fujio!’ I clung to her desperately as she scooped me up in her arms. ‘It burns, mama! It burns!”

Location: Hiroshima
Distance from hypocenter: 2.0km

Learn more from Fujio Torikoshi

THE AFTERMATH

“One incident I will never forget is cremating my father. My brothers and I gently laid his blackened, swollen body atop a burnt beam in front of the factory where we found him dead and set him alight. His ankles jutted out awkwardly as the rest of his body was engulfed in flames.”

Location: Nagasaki
Distance from hypocenter: 2.2km

Learn more from Yoshiro Yamawaki

In the weeks and months that follow, it doesn't get easier. 

You have lost so much.

Thirteen square kilometres in Hiroshima, flattened. Nearly seven square kilometres of homes, schools and hospitals in Nagasaki destroyed by heat, blast and fire. 

“When I returned to Hiroshima on September 16 – one month and 10 days after the bomb attack – what remained of the property was a cluster of overturned tombstones from the temple cemetery. Hiroshima was a flat wasteland. I remember feeling shocked that I could make out the Setonai Islands in the distance, which used to be inhibited by buildings.”

Location: Nagasaki
Distance from hypocenter: nyushi hibaku, or an individual who entered the affected area after the bombing and was exposed to radiation

Learn more from Ryoga Suwa

You are hungry. But how do you find food? You are scared and psychologically scarred from the trauma of loss that never seems to stop. The medical aid and other supplies come too little, too late. 

“After the atomic bomb attack, my mother single-handedly raised me and my four siblings while teaching full-time at a local high school. We waited every day for her to return from work and went ‘shopping’ – that is, visiting dilapidated farms and asking for a share of their crop in exchange for my mother’s cherished kimonos. We walked around half-starved for hours and hours, getting turned away from this farmer and that.”

Location: Nagasaki
Distance from hypocenter: 3.3km

Learn more from Michiko Yagi

Mysterious ailments take the life of your family members you thought would survive. You wonder if you are next, are your children? Decades later, you lose your children to radiation diseases. Cancer runs in the family, like a hereditary trait.

“My mother was killed by the atomic bomb on my tenth birthday. After being bedridden for two months due to severe burns and injuries, she took her last breath. From that point onward, I was thrust into a world of turmoil as a post-war orphan.”

Location: Hiroshima
Distance from hypocenter: 1.5km

Learn more from Yoshiyuki Midou

“I began to tell my story after the death of my daughter, Miwa. Miwa passed away in June of 2010, at age 39. She was hospitalized in January of that year, but told me over the phone, ‘daijoubu, daijoubu’ – that she was okay. In March, I was notified that she had been hospitalized again, and went to see her right away. But it was too late.”

Location: Nagasaki
Distance from hypocenter: 5km

Learn more from Shizuko Mitamura

In the years to come, you face stigma and discrimination for your suffering. You must weigh the discrimination you would face for admitting your identity with your right to subsidized health care. 

“This will put you at a disadvantage for marriage,’ my father warned me. I weighed my options. I was a young woman and healthy for a hibakusha. I decided not to apply for the hibakusha techou (a booklet administered to atomic bomb victims that subsidizes their health care costs), for fear that my soon-to-be husband would find it.”

Location: Hiroshima
Distance from hypocenter: 2.5km

Learn more from Kiyoko Koizumi

You are sick. But you still have hope. And your hope becomes a symbol for peace and nuclear disarmament that inspires the world.

HOPE

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and black rain fell down upon her. At 10 she was diagnosed with leukemia. Determined to beat the disease, she set out to fold 1,000 paper cranes, which according to Japanese legend would grant her a wish. According to her family, she folded more than 1000 paper cranes before she passed away at the age of 12. Paper cranes are a powerful symbol for nuclear disarmament and peace.

Location: Hiroshima

Distance from hypocenter: 2.5km

Just to have survived this atrocity is a miracle. But you don’t give up. You will not rest until you are sure that no one will ever have to endure what you did as a child that August in 1945. Until the world has gotten rid of nuclear weapons for good.

You organise an annual conference bringing thousands of activists and students from around the world to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to learn about your history and to organise together to fight for a nuclear-free world.

You take to the streets. You collect more than 10 million signatures internationally to appeal for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

You take to the seas. You educate the next generation about your experience - painstakingly reliving your childhood trauma each time to make sure that there are no new stories of atomic bombings to tell.

“In 2008, I joined the Peace Boat initiative as a hibakusha and visited 20 countries over a period of four months as part of a global cultural exchange campaign with other victims of war and ongoing nuclear tests. Since then, I have been working as a peace monument guide at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and have taken many students across the city to speak about Hiroshima’s brief history as a military capitol. What I wish to communicate through my guided tours is what I believe to be Hiroshima’s modus operandi – to break the cycle of retaliation.”

Location: Hiroshima
Distance from hypocenter: 4.8km

Learn more from Tatsuro Naito

You take to the United Nations. You advocate for and negotiate the first internationally legally binding treaty banning nuclear weapons.

You accept the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for your work with ICAN "to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for... ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons."

"We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist."

- Setsuko Thurlow, Nobel Lecture, on behalf of ICAN, 2017

You meet with dignitaries around the world, spreading your message and urging international leaders to abandon the bombs that killed your family, that annihilated your home. They hear your stories.

75 years after you saw that blinding light, after you were crushed by that rubble, you haven’t stopped raising your voice. You call on all countries to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. You call on all countries to destroy their stockpile of humanity-ending weapons. You have been working tirelessly to make this appeal for 75 years. And now, you call on the next generation to join you.

TAKE ACTION

Many hibakusha have dedicated their lives to banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. Stand with them. Take the Pledge.