The Duty of the Survivors

Sumiko Kirihara

As IS CUSTOMARY in Japan, at the death of my father, our family received an amount of money from friends in the form of condolence gifts. We decided to donate it to the Atomic-Bomb Hospital in Hiroshima. I took the money there myself. Though I am one of the people exposed to the bomb's radiation, I had never been to this hospital before. The sight of so many people still suffering from incurable sicknesses caused by the bombing deeply saddened me and brought back with renewed freshness my own recollection of the experiences of our family.

In August, 1945, I was fourteen and a second-year student in a prefectural girls' high school. Because we were afraid that as the war approached a final and desperate stage we might be separated in a severe air raid, our family decided to hold a reunion on August 6 and to take a commemorative photograph of all of us together. My elder brother, then a member of a drafted corps assigned to an arsenal in Kure, took leave to come home for the occasion. My younger sister, evacuated to a temple in Kimita, returned; and my elder sister and I took a day off from the factory where we worked. The photographer was supposed to arrive at eight in the morning but was late for some reason. Consequently, we did not go into the garden, but stayed indoors occupying ourselves as we wished. The air-raid alarm had been lifted. We were even relieved to hear the sound of only one airplane flying over the city.

Suddenly a tremendous cracking sound nearly split my eardrums. A pale blue flash temporarily blinded me; then total darkness enveloped everything. When the light once again penetrated the blackness, I saw the city of Hiroshima reduced to ruins.

In a vast area of flattened buildings, I could find only three standing: the Nihon Kangyo Bank in Kanayama-cho, the Fukuya Department Store, and our own two-story wooden house, by some miracle almost undamaged. Among the fallen timbers and over the shattered glass in the streets, people wandered to and fro.

The smell of fire was in the wind. Beyond the river, flames were already leaping up. Though we did not know what had happened, we had the presence of mind to check to make sure we were all together and to turn off the gas in the kitchen. Then, gathering what cooking implements, bandages, and medicines we could find, we left the house where we had lived for over a decade.

Fire now raged everywhere. A black rain fell, and dun smoke hid the sun. As we made our way to the Kyobashi River, whirlwinds tossed sheets of scorched galvanized iron along the streets. Then the winds struck the river, sending columns of water upward, dashing boats about, and heading directly for the place where we were standing. In terror, I dug a hole in the sand, crawled into it, and held my clothing to my body for fear it would be blown away. One whirlwind followed another raising clouds of sand that lashed at my back like countless needles. Unable to bear the winds any longer, we climbed to a piece of open land by the river. But the heat was so great that we were forced to enter the water of the river. Walking on dry land for even ten minutes was impossible because of the intense heat. We saw twenty or thirty people climb out of the water and then return several times. After a while, however, they seemed to have lost strength. Then they moved no more.

We spent the night by the river. The horror of the experience haunts me still. By morning, many of the people we had seen the day before were dead. They lay on the shore or in water tanks and were so bloated that they scarcely looked like human beings. But all seven members of our family had survived. After caring for the burns my elder sister had suffered, we started up the river to Hesaka. All around, in contrast to the black rains and the sand-laden whirlwinds of the previous day, a blazing summer sun shone on the hellish, demolished city.

On all the bridges and roads lay charred corpses with staring white eyes and grinning mouths of white teeth. I saw them, but my mind was too blank to register terror. Soldiers with dangling arms, flayed skin, and yellowish substances oozing from eyeless sockets begged for water. There was nothing we could do. Besides, I doubt if any of us were in our right minds. The city was strangely silent.

Though we had been exposed, we were lucky. Later we suffered falling hair and bleeding gums and a long period of strange languor. But for three years we were able to live in a cottage in the compound of the house of a family for whom my father had long been family doctor. All of us seemed to have recovered completely.

Nonetheless, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine, I suffered from a crushing series of illnesses: a chronic liver ailment for six years, pleurisy, pernicious anemia, gall-bladder trouble, and persistent and unidentifiable fever. Although, as a physician, my father was able to give me elaborate treatment at home, nothing seemed to help. I was told that I would probably spend the rest of my life in a sickbed and that I could never have children.

The prediction has proved false. I have lived a highly active life and have raised three sons.

Hiroshima is now a vast modern city, but it stands on the corpses of the victims of the bombing. I am convinced that it is the duty of those of us who have survived to inspire everyone with whom we come into contact with a burning desire for peace.

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