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Life after the atomic bomb.

ON AUG. 6 AND 9, 1945, THE U.S. DROPPED atomic bombs--first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki--in order to end the war with Japan. This marked the first time in history that weapons of such mass destruction were used against civilians. Within the year, the death toll was about 200,000. Today, there are as many as 400,000 survivors from those bombings.

The atomic explosions inflicted severe physical damage, most obviously, burns from the blast wave and resultant fires and radiation-related diseases from the initial explosion and subsequent fallout. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation noted that early symptoms of exposure to the bombs included fatigue, high fevers, nausea, vomiting, bleeding from the gums, cataracts, and diarrhea. Today, survivors, especially those who were children at the time, run higher risk of developing leukemia and other nonmalignant disorders. In sum, not only did the survivors of the atomic bombs suffer from radiation effects immediately following the event, but have remained at higher risk than the general population for other physical ailments.

In spite of the fact that this massive destruction occurred more than 60 years ago, the psychosocial effects of the experience on the survivors rarely have been studied. One major reason for this is that survivors and their families often were stigmatized by others and feared social rejection if they publicly discussed their experiences. As a result, A-bomb survivors have tended to keep their history a secret.

Setsuko Thurlow was 13 years old when the bomb hit Hiroshima. In 1982, she wrote that the "physical condition [was] beyond description." This inability to put her thoughts and feelings into words continued for weeks: "I remember being stunned by indescribable and undistinguishable feelings and not being able to express them." She goes on to discuss psychic numbing--an inability to feel--that haunts her to this day.

In 1981, researcher Joanne Silberner looked at the continuing psychological problems of survivors. These include refusal to leave one's home, inability to hold down a job, nightmares, depression, and anger. Silberner identified three levels of survivor reactions: denial of memories of the event; the feeling that the person's sole identity was that of a survivor of the bombing; and transcendence. Silberner also notes the psychic numbing caused by the A-bomb.

Psychological scars

The concept of psychic numbing brings us to Robert Lifton, the psychiatrist who coined the term, and who has been studying the effects of the atomic bombings since 1962. Lifton identifies five psychological themes of survivors: overwhelmingly indelible images of grotesque forms of death that color all subsequent experience; guilt for living through the tragedy; psychic numbing; feelings of being entrapped in a world that seems counterfeit and in which they cannot trust others; and the struggle for meaning, a wish to bear witness and have the crimes committed against them acknowledged.

Lifton also delineates three stages that the survivors experienced after the bombings: immediate fears went beyond their own deaths; during the following days and weeks, people who first appeared to be untouched began exhibiting physical symptoms, and many more died, giving the sense that these weapons of mass destruction had poisoned everything; years later, there was an increase in incidences of cancers in victims, as the effects of the Abomb were seen to be endless.

A study by researcher Maya Todeschini focuses on the ways in which the A-bomb affected women within Japanese culture. Todeschini's dissertation, which analyzes life histories of women who were teenagers at the time of the bombings, found that women who suffered radiation illnesses were seen as aggressors and "polluters."

What can research on the psychosocial effects of the Holocaust teach us about the longterm effects of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Holocaust studies demonstrate that the effects of the trauma remain evident today. As early as 1964, William Niederland described the "survivor syndrome" that affected many concentration camp inmates. It includes depression, nightmares, anxiety of renewed persecution, psychosomatic symptoms, survivor guilt, emotional numbing, cognitive and memory disturbances, an inability to verbalize the traumatic experiences, heightened aggression, and a "living corpse" appearance.

Since 1980, after inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the DSM-III, the diagnostic manual of psychological disorders used by mental health professionals, many clinicians and researchers have explored the long-term psychosocial effects of the Holocaust on survivors through this prism. Researchers now speak of post-trauma, even when survivors do not meet the formal criteria for diagnosis of the disorder. Hans Keilson, however, who undertook a longitudinal study on Dutch Jewish war orphans, prefers the concept of "sequential traumatization," to PTSD. Instead of seeing an "event" that has "consequences," trauma is viewed as a lifelong process with sequences. This helps explain why trauma continues, even years after the event, and why victims can develop symptoms at different times after the experience.

Since the 1980s, Holocaust literature has focused on memories of the survivors. For example, researchers Doff Laub, Nanette Auerhahn, and Lawrence Langer discuss different types of Holocaust memory--all of which reflect the difficulty that the survivors have in recalling and narrating their Holocaust experiences. More recently, researchers have looked at the way survivors who were children during the Holocaust remember parent-child relationships during the war.

While there is consensus that not all Holocaust survivors suffer from PTSD, there is no debate that the Holocaust negatively affected its victims for life, including survivors who function well. One reason why many survivors still carry wounds of their past is connected to the "conspiracy of silence" that Yael Danieli has researched. After World War II, many victims tried talking about their experiences to others in an attempt to reconnect with the "normal" world. However, people were unwilling to listen, often refusing to believe that what they heard was true. This unsupportive atmosphere left survivors feeling alienated and betrayed. As a result, research indicates that many victims remained mum publicly and withdrew into their families where they either also kept silent or talked incessantly about their experiences. To this day, many survivors continue to say nothing of that time.

Based on this knowledge, our study asked: How are the experiences of the A-bomb survivors remembered? When the survivors talk about their experiences, what do they focus on? What can we learn about the long-term psychological and physical effects of the experiences? Where does the A-bomb experience "fit" into the survivors' lives?

We interviewed eight A-bomb survivors--in Japanese, Hibakusha--six women and two men of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In 1945, their ages ranged from 14 to 32. Two of the survivors were married during the war and the other six married afterward. All of them have children and grandchildren.

We asked open-ended questions in order to give these individuals the opportunity to talk at length. Our queries included those concerning life before and after the war; experiences of the bombings; physical and psychological aftereffects of the bombings; the state of present-day life (such as occupation, family, etc.); reactions of post-war Japanese society; discussion of A-bomb revelations with children or grandchildren; hopes for the future; and messages for others. We asked the Japan Confederation A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization for help in contacting potential participants. However, it was extremely difficult to find willing interviewees, since, in Japan, most of the Hibakusha feel uneasy discussing their experiences with a stranger, for fear of being misunderstood. Eventually, we succeeded in tape recording interviews with eight survivors, which took place between June 2000 and March 2001, usually in the person's home, and lasted between one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours. A transcription of each interview was made and they were translated from Japanese into English. The research team jointly analyzed the interviews by identifying the themes that appeared to be central for the participants.

Three prevalent themes that surfaced were the memories of the attack and immediately afterward, post-war social action as a result of the experience, and health concerns affecting the survivor and his or her children. All of our interviewees spoke of memories of the injured; helplessness at not being able to ease their suffering; sensory recollections of the A-bombs; treatment that they gave others; the zombie-like motions of the victims; and the eerie quiet that followed the attacks.

Mitsu O (all names are pseudonyms) was 15 years old the day of the Nagasaki bombing: "On our way home, the A-bomb was dropped. ... When the train stopped at the ... station, we heard a big sound.... We had no idea that it was caused by an A-bombing.... We sheltered ourselves under the seat. At that moment, I felt ... a mass of heat passing through in the train. ... We needed to evacuate.... We came back to the station. Heavy black smoke was ... rising up in the direction of Nagasaki.... The station official said to us: 'A rescue train carrying many wounded people arrives here in no time. Take care of the wounded people.' The train came into the station; [it] looked as if it arrived from hell. I felt a shuddering dread. Wounded people were loaded ... in the passenger cars ... on the roofs, the decks ... all of them were staring at us.... I felt weak at my knees.... I managed to get into the train to them. Some of them had already died. The inside of the train looked like an inferno with groans and [the] stench of blood. I grabbed [the] hands of wounded people in an attempt to take them off the train, but their skin came off every time I grabbed their hands. So, giving up trying to grab their hands, I carried them on my shoulders to [get] them out of the train.... As we repeated this action many times, we became more and more insensitive. In the end, we felt nothing--even if we strode over dead bodies."

From this excerpt, we see signs of the phenomena noted by Lifton when he described Hiroshima victims, Thurlow in the recollections of her experiences, and Niederland concerning Holocaust survivors. These include psychic numbing ("we felt nothing--even if we strode over dead bodies") and the death imprint ("The train ... looked as if it had arrived from hell.... Their skin came off every time I grabbed their hands."). The other interviewees provided descriptions similar in their grotesque details to the ones given by Mitsu. All of these survivors noted that they continue to see, hear, and smell the bombing to this day.

Seven of the survivors spoke about their participation in social-political organizations. Some began their work soon after the war; others became involved when their children were grown and married, when they worried less about public knowledge of their past adversely affecting their offspring. The social action of the survivors takes different forms: involvement with political parties that furthered civil rights; advocating for governmental allocation of funds for A-bomb victims; joining in survivor support groups; and protesting against nuclear bomb development.

Survivors' rights

One survivor of Hiroshima who engaged in political activism is Toshi Y. She was a 32-year-old married mother of three when the bomb fell. She, like the others, also witnessed death and recalls these sights with graphic detail. After Toshi received her A-bomb certificate (issued by the government, formally recognizing individuals who survived the bombings), she became involved in the public fight for survivors' rights, taking on positions of responsibility over the years.

"I got energy by taking leadership in activities such as going to the Diet, the ward assembly, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Council for a petition or a hearing. I go to many places to deliver petitions.... The use of nuclear weapons should be avoided. Our goal is nuclear disarmament of the world.... In my opinion, [Pakistan] has carried out such [nuclear] tests because they did not know what devastating impact nuclear weapons had. It was strange that they were happy with the successful result of their test. They did not know what real fear was like.... I wonder if people living near the test sites in Nevada are receiving much money.... People who don't know the fear inflicted by nuclear weapons feel happy with the successful results of the nuclear bomb test.... This is a photograph of our signature-collecting campaign against war when the Gulf War broke out."

The motivation to engage in social action echoes Lifton's finding that survivors struggle for meaning and attempt to integrate their A-bomb experiences into their post-war lives. These survivors also may be motivated to take social action due to survivor's guilt, a sense of responsibility to the dead, or a need to fight against the social stigmatization of the survivors--or all three.

Our final theme focuses on coping with health issues, and includes immediate radiation reactions after the bombing; fears and suffering concerning the ability to get pregnant and of having miscarriages; passing on genetic disorders to one's children; and having physically handicapped offspring. When the survivors talked about their health concerns, they often mentioned their children, friends, and relatives who also had been bombed.

"I did not have my period after the A-bomb," recalls Yuki S, who was 14 when the bomb hit Nagasaki. "In December of [that] year, I had my period for the second time and gave a sigh of relief.... I often had nosebleeds. They started for no reason. While I was talking, I would feel something warm on my face, and a nosebleed had started." Later on, discussing her children, she remembers that, "except for the second baby whose birth weight was [almost seven pounds], my other two children were barely heavier than the weight of a premature baby when they were born. I didn't know if this was caused by my body condition.... My first child was born 27 days after the expected date. He didn't come out easily. The umbilical cord wound around his neck twice. He was born with a pale face. Looking at him, my mother thought, 'He won't live.' I gave birth to our second child in 1958 without any trouble. It took less than two hours. He looked free coming out.... When the first baby was not born as expected, my husband's family talked about various fears behind my back such as the adverse effect of the A-bomb attack and incomplete growth of the baby. My husband said to them, 'She has been healthy. Everything will be all right.' It was a relief for me that he didn't show deep concerns about aftereffects of the A-bomb attack. Physically challenged children were born to some A-bomb sufferers. Fortunately, my sisters and I did not have such children. I always thought it would be very hard to be a parent of a disabled child."

Moreover, the survivors inevitably noted the physical ailments that other victims had, thus creating a link between surviving the bomb and physical repercussions. While all of our interviewees lead "normal" lives, we learned about the sequential negative effects of having survived the bomb at each stage in their lives--the bomb experience itself; physical and mental recovery; rebuilding their lives; marrying and having children; and dealing with later effects in their senior years.

One anomaly was the fact that feelings of survivor guilt were relatively understated and the theme of distrust in post-war interpersonal relationships usually only was hinted at. It is difficult to know, for example, why only one survivor openly expressed feelings of distrust of Japanese "nonsurvivors." Perhaps this is a not an issue for the victims. However, the difficulty we had finding interviewees, coupled with survivors' statements concerning their silence throughout the years, points to a pattern of silence concerning the A-bomb in Japan. This becomes even more evident when we see that so little has been published about the psychosocial effects of these bombs, in either Japanese or English.

Moreover, it appeared much easier for the survivors to talk about physical repercussions, rather than the psychological and social effects, of the bombings. Danieli had a similar finding in her work with families of Holocaust survivors; she noticed that it often was much more "acceptable" for survivors to complain of physical ailments than to talk about psychological distress. While this finding in no way diminishes the importance of the physical consequences, it suggests that, in Japanese society as well, discourse about health concerns is more acceptable than those about psychosocial repercussions of the nuclear attacks.

We believe that it is time to end the silencing of the past in Japan. One way to begin this process is by interviewing more survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and by making these interviews available to the public. The wall of silence, however, also needs to be breached in the Western world. Given today's real threat of nuclear war, Western health professionals and social scientists need to understand the psychosocial effects of this past attack. Finally, as we have seen, the horrific consequences of the A-bombs did not end when Japan surrendered. The events continue to reverberate, touching people born many years after the tragedy. Therefore, we all are responsible for working toward peaceful resolution of our world's conflicts.

Julia Chaitin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Sapir College in Israel. Aiko Sawada is professor of nursing ethics and fundamental nursing at Siebold University, Nagasaki, Japan. Dan Bar-On is a professor of psychology in the Behavioral Sciences Department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
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Title Annotation:The World Yesterday
Author:Chaitin, Julia; Sawada, Aiko; Bar-On, Dan
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:2874
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