Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War

by Susan Southard


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“[A] reminder of just how horrible nuclear weapons are.”—The Wall Street Journal

A devastating read that highlights man’s capacity to wreak destruction, but in which one also catches a glimpse of all that is best about people.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A poignant and complex picture of the second atomic bomb’s enduring physical and psychological tolls. Eyewitness accounts are visceral and haunting. . . . But the book’s biggest achievement is its treatment of the aftershocks in the decades since 1945.” —The New Yorker

The enduring impact of a nuclear bomb, told through the stories of those who survived: necessary reading as the threat of nuclear war emerges again.
On August 9, 1945, three days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a small port city on Japan’s southernmost island. An estimated 74,000 people died within the first five months, and another 75,000 were injured.

Nagasaki takes readers from the morning of the bombing to the city today, telling the first-hand experiences of five survivors, all of whom were teenagers at the time of the devastation. Susan Southard has spent years interviewing hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”) and researching the physical, emotional, and social challenges of post-atomic life. She weaves together dramatic eyewitness accounts with searing analysis of the policies of censorship and denial that colored much of what was reported about the bombing both in the United States and Japan.
A gripping narrative of human resilience, Nagasaki will help shape public discussion and debate over one of the most controversial wartime acts in history.

WINNER of the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize

FINALIST for the Ridenhour Book Prize • Chautauqua Prize • William Saroyan International Prize for Writing PEN Center USA Literary Award 

The Economist • The Washington Post • American Library Association • Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143109426
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 288,857
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susan Southard holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and was a nonfiction fellow at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Southard’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and Lapham’s Quarterly. She has taught nonfiction classes at Arizona State University’s Piper Writers Studio and the University of Georgia, and directed creative writing programs for incarcerated youth and at a federal prison for women outside Phoenix. Southard is the founder and artistic director of Essential Theatre.

Read an Excerpt


In the summer of 1986, I received a last-minute call asking me to step in as a substitute interpreter for Taniguchi Sumiteru, a fifty-seven-year-old survivor of the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bombing. Taniguchi was in Washington, D.C., as part of a speaking tour in the United States. I had just met him the night before when I attended one of his talks. Over the next two days, I spent more than twenty hours with Taniguchi, listening to and interpreting his story in public presentations and private conversations.

Years earlier I had lived in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, as an international scholarship student. At sixteen, I was placed with a traditional Japanese family and attended an all-girls high school in the neighboring city of Kamakura, Japan’s ancient capital. Nearly everything was foreign to me, including the language—and I had little knowledge of the Pacific War and the atomic bombings that had taken place thirty years earlier. Later that year, after my language skills and integration into Japanese life had improved, I traveled to Nagasaki for the first time during my high school’s senior class trip to southern Japan. Inside the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, I stood arm in arm with friends who had embraced me as their own, staring at photographs of burned adults and children and the crushed and melted household items on display. In one of the glass cases, a helmet still had the charred flesh of a person’s scalp stuck inside.

The memory of Nagasaki stayed with me into adulthood. And yet, as I listened to Taniguchi speak in a dimly lit church hall near downtown D.C., I realized how ignorant I still was of the history of the Pacific War, the development of the atomic bombs, and the human consequences of their use.

Taniguchi was sharply dressed in a gray suit, a white dress shirt, and a deep purple and navy striped tie. On his left lapel he wore a pin—a white origami crane set against a red background. His thick black hair was combed neatly to the side. Small—maybe five foot six—and noticeably thin, he told his story quietly, the syllables toppling one upon another: At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, sixteen-year-old Taniguchi was on his bicycle delivering mail in the northwestern section of the city when a plutonium bomb fell from the sky and exploded over a Nagasaki neighborhood of about thirty thousand residents. “In the flash of the explosion,” he said, his voice trembling, “I was blown off the bicycle from behind and slapped down against the ground. The earth seemed to shiver like an earthquake.” Although he was over a mile away, the extraordinary heat of the bomb torched Taniguchi’s back. After a few moments, he lifted his head to see that the children who had been playing near him were dead.

As he spoke, Taniguchi held up a photograph of himself taken five months after the blast during his protracted stay at a hospital north of Nagasaki. In the photograph he is lying on his stomach, emaciated. Down one arm and from neck to buttocks where his back would be, there is no skin or flesh, only exposed muscle and tissue, raw and red. As Taniguchi finished his speech, he made eye contact with his audience for the first time. “Let there be no more Nagasakis,” he appealed. “I call on you to work together to build a world free of nuclear weapons.”

After his presentation, I drove Taniguchi to the small house outside of D.C. where he was staying. We sat on the front porch; the light from the front hallway allowed us to see each other only in shadow. I plied Taniguchi with questions about the bombing and the weeks, months, and years that followed. He handed me a small stack of photos that resembled mug shots—medical photos, I presumed—full-body back, front, and side views. They showed Taniguchi, perhaps in his forties, naked except for his traditional Japanese undergarment. His entire back was a mass of rubbery keloid scars. Near the center of his chest, deep indentations still remained where his skin and flesh had rotted, the result of lying on his stomach for nearly four years. It was a time, he told me, when the pain was so excruciating that every day he had begged the nurses to let him die. I asked Taniguchi which memories from his life were most important to him. “Just that I lived,” he said. “That I have lived this long. I have sadness and struggle that goes with being alive, but I went to the very last edge of life, so I feel joy in the fact that I’m here, now.”

By the time Taniguchi left Washington, I longed to more fully understand what it took for him and others to live day by day in the face of acute physical pain, psychological trauma, and a personal history split in half by nuclear war. What kinds of radiation-related injuries did they experience, and what did survival look like in the days, months, and years that followed the attack? And how was it that I, who had lived in Japan and had been educated in excellent public high schools and universities in the United States, had no specific knowledge about the survivors of the atomic bombings? Why do most Americans know little or nothing about the victims’ experiences beneath the atomic clouds or in the years since 1945?


As single weapons, the atomic bombs used against Japan were unmatched in their explosive force, intense heat, and ability to cause instantaneous mass death. Radiation doses larger than any human had ever received penetrated the bodies of people and animals, causing cellular changes that led to death, disease, and life-altering medical conditions. More than 200,000 men, women, and children died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks—either at the time of the bombings or over the next five months from their wounds or acute radiation exposure. In the years that followed, tens of thousands more suffered from injury and radiation-related diseases. An estimated 192,000 hibakusha (atomic bomb–affected people—pronounced hee-bakh-sha) are still alive today. The youngest, exposed in utero to the bombs’ radiation, will turn seventy in August 2015.

Many critically acclaimed books have addressed the United States’ decision to use the bomb, but few have featured the eyewitness accounts of atomic bomb survivors. Those that have, such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima and several collections of hibakusha testimonies, focus almost exclusively on the immediate aftermath of the bombings; stories detailing the brutal long-term physical, emotional, and social manifestations of nuclear survival have rarely been told. As the second city bombed, Nagasaki is even less known than Hiroshima, which quickly became the global symbol of the atomic bombings of Japan. The invisibility of Nagasaki is so extreme that “the bomb” is often expressed as a singular event for both cities, without regard for the fact that the two atomic bombings were separated by time, geography, and the need for distinct analysis of military necessity.

Many Americans’ perceptions of the atomic bombings are infused with inaccurate assumptions—in large part because the grave effects of whole-body radiation exposure were categorically denied by high-level U.S. officials. For years after the attacks, news accounts, photographs, scientific research, and personal testimonies of nuclear survival were both censored in Japan by U.S. occupation forces and restricted in the United States by government request. U.S. officials also constructed and promoted an effective but skewed narrative defending the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Americans, relieved that the war was over, easily accepted the government’s simplified message that the bombings had ended the war and saved a quarter of a million, half a million, or a million American lives. With wartime propaganda in both nations depicting the enemy as subhuman, and with Americans’ fury over Pearl Harbor, Japan’s mistreatment and killings of Allied POWs, and its slaughter of civilians across Asia, a common American response to the atomic bombings was that “the Japanese deserved what they got.” All of these factors have limited Americans’ public inquiry into and understanding of the true impact on the people—nearly all civilians—who experienced the world’s first wartime use of atomic bombs.

Compelled by a greater understanding of these historical influences and ongoing questions about the survivors’ personal experiences, I traveled to Nagasaki numerous times over a period of eight years. I conducted multiple extended interviews with Taniguchi and four other hibakusha—Do-oh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Wada Koichi, and Yoshida Katsuji—all of whom were teenagers at the time of the bombing. They and their families also provided me with extensive supporting materials, including personal essays, correspondence, medical records, and photographs. The stories of these five survivors, both epic and intimate, create the primary narrative strands of this book, documenting the seventy-year impact of nuclear war on them, their families, and their communities.

I also interviewed twelve other hibakusha, some of whom had never told their stories to anyone outside of their immediate families. I met with Nagasaki atomic bomb specialists, including historians, physicians, psychologists, social workers, educators, and staff researchers at atomic bomb museums, hospitals, research centers, libraries, and survivor organizations. I also studied the written testimonies of more than three hundred Nagasaki survivors as well as privately printed documents, collections, government sources, and thousands of archival photographs of Nagasaki before and after the bombing.

Hibakusha history is a complex and multidimensional story, and there are few straight lines in the survivors’ lives. In order to create a semblance of order for their chaotic postnuclear years and the sometimes disparate aspects of their stories, I have arranged the book into nine chronological and thematic chapters, covering 1945 to the present. As the lives of the five hibakusha unfold, I document the bombings’ larger medical and societal effects, including little-known details of physical injuries and disfiguration, acute and late radiation-related illnesses, extreme isolation during many years of hospitalization and home care, and the numerous challenges hibakusha encountered as they tried to redefine normalcy after nuclear war. In the face of societal discrimination and fears of genetic effects on their children, each decided whether to hide or reveal their identities as hibakusha, if and when to marry or have children, and whether they would break their silence and talk about their experiences with their families, friends, employers, or the public. Their stories are set against the backdrop of U.S.-Japan relations before, during, and after the war, and are intertwined with the political, social, and economic transformations in postwar Japan, scientific information about the effects of radiation, and evidence of U.S. policies of censorship and denial that continue to affect public opinion and create barriers to understanding. Except for Taniguchi, whom I met when he was in his fifties, I’ve known these hibakusha from their midseventies into their eighties. They provide a rare view of the memories and perspectives of aging adults whose early lives were permanently interrupted by a nuclear bomb.


There were many challenges in taking on this project, not the least of which was trying to write about nuclear annihilation and terror at a scale that defies imagination. My approach was to stay with the survivors’ individual experiences and perspectives as much as possible to keep the story real and imaginable, while offering context for clarification and understanding of larger social, political, and medical issues. In any historical account that incorporates personal narrative, there are complications due to the inherent limitations and unreliability of memory, especially traumatic memory. I countered this by cross-checking survivors’ accounts against support documentation to verify or expand on their memories of events, places, and people. Further, I am an American, of another culture and generation than the subjects of this book, and I wanted to prevent potential manipulation or appropriation of the survivors’ stories, even more so because they were people who, no matter what the rationale, had already been violated by my country. My answer to this challenge was to use the survivors’ own words and images to relay their experiences as accurately as possible, and to draw on the clearest scientific, medical, political, military, and historical analyses I could find to place the survivors’ experiences into the larger framework of the various histories in which they played a part.

When I talk with Americans about this book, some of the first questions I am asked relate to the necessity and morality of the U.S. decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan. Many people hold unequivocal opinions that fall on either side of these issues. One of the critical (and difficult) questions to ask is how we as Americans defined then—and define now—just action, the cost of victory, and our criteria for committing to and accepting the mass killing or wounding of civilians of a nation we consider our enemy. Numerous scholars have analyzed and continue to debate U.S. motivations to use the atomic bombs and the relative impact of the multifaceted events leading up to Japan’s capitulation, including the atomic bombings. Their work has provided valuable political and military context for the Nagasaki story and provoked questions about the accepted narrative of the bombs’ military necessity, especially regarding the need for the second atomic bomb. They do not offer easy conclusions.

In answering queries about the necessity of the bombings, I redirect people to the stories of those who experienced them, without which discussions of the military, moral, and existential questions about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks are incomplete. At the very least, if we choose to take and defend actions that cause great harm to civilians during war, I believe we must also be willing to look at the impact of those actions. Hibakusha—the only people in history who have lived through a nuclear attack and its aftermath—are at the end of their lives, and they hold in their memories stirring evidence of the devastating long-term effects of nuclear war.


The large majority of hibakusha do not speak about their atomic bomb experiences, even within their own families. Their memories are too excruciating, and traditional Japanese culture—particularly for those born in the early twentieth century—does not promote public disclosure of personal, family, or societal struggles. Further, the risk of discrimination against hibakusha exists even today. Many survivors still keep their identity hidden to avoid being perceived as “different”—or worse, seeing their children or grandchildren denied employment or marriage because of a parent’s or grandparent’s hibakusha status.

A select few—including Taniguchi, Do-oh, Nagano, Wada, and Yoshida—felt compelled to speak openly about their experiences, even though doing so required them to relive the horrors of their childhoods and young adulthoods. On behalf of those who died before their voices could be heard, these five hibakusha devoted much of their adult lives to eliminating ignorance about the realities of nuclear war and petitioning nuclear nations to reduce or eliminate their weapons stockpiles. They are trying, at all costs, to prevent worse nuclear horrors from taking place in the future.

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the second and last atomic bomb attack in history, it is my hope that this book will unveil these neglected stories to a larger audience and help shape the course of public discussion and debate over one of the most controversial wartime acts in history. The stories of those who were beneath the mushroom clouds can transform our generalized perceptions of nuclear war into visceral human experience. “Now, to be A-bombed,” Nagasaki poet Oyama Takami wrote, “[there] is nothing really abstract in that.”

Susan Southard

July 2015

From the Hardcover edition.


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Table of Contents

Maps xii

Preface xv

A Note on Japanese Names and Terms xxiii

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 Convergence 7

Chapter 2 Flashpoint 41

Chapter 3 Embers 65

Chapter 4 Exposed 96

Chapter 5 Time Suspended 131

Chapter 6 Emergence 164

Chapter 7 Afterlife 203

Chapter 8 Against Forgetting 236

Chapter 9 Gaman 273

Acknowledgments 303

Notes 307

Hibakusha Sources and Selected Biblography 349

Index 373

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