Obligation To Testify

Atsuko Yamamoto

In the summer of 1945, I was working at a suburban factory as a member of the Student Patriotic Service Corps and was attending a girls' high school as a third-year student. I was fifteen. On August 6, I was on my way to school for classes. It was a Monday, a day on which electricity was not supplied to our factory. Walking near Hiroshima Station, I heard aircraft. I thought it was odd, since the all-clear had sounded earlier in the morning. As I looked up into the blue, cloudless sky, a tremendous light flashed. The force of a huge blast hurled me to the ground. When I came to, I felt something blazing hot on the back of my neck. The collar of the blouse of my school uniform was on fire. Quickly I put out the flames. My pantaloons -- we all wore them during the war -- had been burned away. Even my watch and shoes had been torn from me. I had nothing on but the rags of my blouse and my underwear. Assuming that a bomb must have made a direct hit nearby, I started running in the direction of home. But even as I began, throngs of blood-smeared, half-naked people rushed from the direction of my house. Something horrible must have happened there too.

I did not know what to do or where to turn. Looking around me, I saw a partly demolished streetcar. Inside stood scores of passengers, dead. Some of them still held in their hands the straps to which they had been clinging when the bomb exploded.

My confusion grew worse, and home was all I could think of. In spite of my fear of what I might find, I hurried along. Destroyed buildings blocked my way. Bleeding and injured people hurried from place to place calling for their children or parents. American planes still circled over a city that was now a sea of flame. Soon it began to rain great, greasy, black drops. On my way to the river, I had to walk over burning timbers and dead bodies. The heat became unbearable. To cool myself, I jumped into the river, where the tide carried corpses past me. I pushed some of them aside to drink water to quench my scorching thirst. The tide ebbed. I slept on the beach among the dead.

When I wakened, I resumed my efforts to go home. But home existed no more. At least, I could not find it, for all the familiar landmarks had been destroyed. For three days, I dashed around Hiroshima in a frantic effort to escape the ever-pursuing flames.

On the fourth day, I found a train in operation and boarded it to join my mother, brothers, and sisters, who had been evacuated to the country earlier. When I arrived at the place where they were, I found everything in a shambles. I called out my name and cried for my mother; but I was afraid that even if she were there she would not know me. My face was burned black. My blouse was in tatters. I had on nothing else except a curtain that I had found and wrapped around my waist. Still, she did find me and recognize me. She and her neighbors took me to a hospital.

Daily after that, we traveled in a bicycle-drawn cart for treatment, though all that could be done was to apply Mercurochrome to my wounds and change the bandages. Other medicaments were unavailable. It took six months for the wounds to heal. How impatient I was for the day when the bandages would be removed.

When they were, mother would not let me near the mirror. Finally, however, I forced my way past her and saw myself. Weeping, I collapsed to the floor. I could not believe that it was my face.

My hands and feet were scarred with red welts. The fingers of my left hand were permanently bent at the joints. My face was covered with ugly keloidal scars. Until the bandages were off, I had cherished some hope. Now all hope was gone. How could I go on living with such a face? I cursed the war and my fate.

My life became a crushing series of nightmarish incidents. I recall being sent to town on an errand one day. People turned their heads to stare at me; small children chased me and called me hurtful names. Humiliated, unable to complete the errand, I returned home weeping.

The face is of the greatest importance to a woman. With my scarred and hideous appearance, I despaired of life. One day, I took rat poison. But mother found out soon enough to give me treatment and prevent death. I had to go on, even though neither I nor any other person in the world could do anything about my face. Even my mother once let slip a painful remark: "What am I to do, saddled with a cripple like you for the rest of my life?"

If I was to live, I needed work. After some thought, I decided to learn dressmaking, which, once learned, could be done in the privacy of my home. But to learn the skill, I had to make a thirty-minute train ride each way to a school in the city. Alone, with no friends, I had to muster great courage for the daily trip. I was so embarrassed by the stares of the other passengers that in winter I covered my face with the kind of white gauze surgical mask that people often wear when they have colds. In summer, of course, I could not stand the heat with such a mask on.

In hot weather, other women can wear short-sleeved blouses. For ten years I wore long sleeves always, to hide my scarred arms. On the train people avoided me as if I were a monster. Sometimes I was so hurt that I would go to the train-car vestibule and weep in silence. After six months of commuting, I gave it up as too emotionally trying.

One day I read an advertisement for nurse trainees. Optimistically thinking that it would be fitting for an afflicted person like me to devote herself to the healing of others, I applied. But the person who conducted my interview humiliated me by saying that my appearance would be an obstruction to the recuperation of patients.

Finally, I found work that I could do and that was not odious to me. A relative of my eldest sister's husband, living in Hiroshima, wanted a maid to cook and do the laundry. In such a job, I would not have to meet many people and would live in relative seclusion. Working up my courage, I applied and took the job.

Some time later, a friend introduced me to a Christian church in the hope that religious life might offer me solace. Through the efforts of the pastor of the church, who was an American, I was sent to the United States to undergo plastic surgery. I lived in America for thirteen months. While there, I became friends with a widow who, having lost her husband in the war, was living in penury and solitude. I came to realize that I had been foolish to suffer alone. I was not the only unfortunate person in the world.

At last, aware of the need to be useful to my society, I returned to Japan, where an acquaintance helped me find work as a telephone operator. A man in the same office asked me to marry him. Later I gave birth to a girl. My husband and I built a new home, and I was very, very happy for seven years. But it was not to last. Ultimately, my husband and I were divorced. Our three-year-old daughter was left in my custody.

Once again, death seemed the only way to bring my suffering to an end. Taking my daughter with me, I went to a hot-spring resort in a remote mountain district. This time, I was determined that no one would interfere with my suicide. I put my daughter to sleep, then took sleeping tablets. While waiting for them to take effect, I intended to strangle my child. But looking at her sweet, innocent face, I could not harm her. Suddenly it dawned on me that if I had the courage to take my life I had the courage to live it. All I needed to do was harness my courage for positive and constructive purposes. I myself thwarted my third and final suicide attempt by quickly calling for medical assistance.

After some time had passed, I became acquainted with a devout Buddhist whose way of life impressed me. In November 1965, I joined that person's Buddhist group, and ever since I have been glad that I did not kill myself. Life is now a joy for me.

Four years ago, my daughter and I went to the United States to express gratitude to an elderly couple who had helped me when I had lived a month in New York. Now I have fulfilled my long-cherished dream of opening a dressmaking shop of my own. I know that I have a moral obligation to tell my ordeal to as many people as possible. Once, my ugly scars made me dread social contacts. Today they are the testimony that I bear to young people to the effect that all war must be abolished.

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