Doctor Akiko Mikamo was born in Hiroshima in 1961, the daughter of two atomic-bomb-survivors. Her book, Rising from the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness from Hiroshima, is a moving account of one family’s experience of the atomic bomb, the suffering, death and destruction it wrought, but it also tells of the resilience and determination to start new lives and ultimately to forgive and move on.
The story is narrated by Doctor Mikamo’s father, Shinji Mikamo, in the first person singular, which informs the account with a dramatic sense of immediacy.
The A-Bombing of Hiroshima
Doctor Mikamo’s future parents were both teenagers at the time of the bombing and both were badly injured by the blast.
Her mother, Miyoko, was working in the Postal Savings Center, just 700 metres from the epicenter, when the bomb exploded. She dived under her desk and was protected from the intense heat by the building, but sustained deep cuts in her back and shoulder from shards of flying glass.
Doctor Mikamo’s father, Shinji, was pulling tiles from the roof of family home in Kamiyanagi-cho, near Sakae Bridge, to prepare it for enforced demolition, a measure that was supposed to prevent the spread of firestorms should Hiroshima be an air-raid target as many other cities on the Japanese mainland had been. The house was about 1,500 metres from the epicentre and when the atom bomb exploded Shinji suffered severe burns all down the right side of his body. He was pulled out of the ruins of the house by his father, Fukuichi Mikamo.
It quickly becomes evident that Fukuichi Mikamo is the true hero of the story. A kind, resourceful man, “forward thinking, practical and rational,” with a sharp sense of humour who, the narrator observes, was possibly the only atomic bomb victim to “laugh sarcastically” that at least the Americans had saved him the arduous job of dismantling his house.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing it is Fukuichi who forces Shinji to keep going in spite of the intense pain of his burns and injuries. They head east, over Sakae bridge and seek shelter in Toshogu Shrine. The next day Fukuichi insists that they must return to their home rather than wait for death to overtake them. They are repulsed by two heartless young soldiers. Every step in sheer agony, stepping with burnt feet on the dead and dying, or on rubble, splintered shards of wood and other debris, the scorching August sun playing on their burnt and exposed flesh.
Nevertheless, Fukuichi drives his son on until they reach their home. There, they are aided by the kindness of some neighbours, who give them each a bowl of miso soup – their first victuals in two days. They are eventually rescued from the city by a friend of Shinji’s who went to their house in search of them.
Shinji, as a skilled civilian employee of the army, has the status and privilges of a gunzoku – one who “belongs to the military” – and is taken by the army to a military hospital on one of the islands off the south coast of Hiroshima. Shinji’s father, who is not a gunzoku, is not allowed to accompany him and he never sees his father again.
The harrowing story of Shinji’s survival, his intense sufferiing in hospital, his eventual discharge, also include many intriguing details which are mentioned in passing and add greatly to the interest of the book. For example, that able-bodied adult residents of Hiroshima were not allowed to leave the city without a permit during the war; that when the war was over, and Shinji asked one solder if Japan had won or lost, he replied that he was not sure…
After he is discharged from hospital, Shinji must find a way to make a living. He encounters both meanness and generosity in his struggle to survive. As the only one of his immediate family to have survived, he is reduced to the status of a “street rat”.
He observes that, with the loosening of government regulation, black markets flourished, prices soared and criminal gangs, whose activities had been severely curtailed during the military dictatorship, established themselves once again in the post-war era. The yakuza offered many young men in desperate circumstances an alluring way out of poverty. (For a flavour of Hiroshima’s criminal underworld in the immediate post-war era, see the film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity [仁義なき戦い Jingi Naki Tatakai].)
At the same time, legitimate businesses also began to appear, such as Daichi Sangyo, an electronics company. While one of Shinji’s friends chose the path of the yakuza, Shinji himself dedicated himself to his work as a radio technician, working in a small room in his in-laws’ house.
As Hiroshima emerged from devastation, the city was designated by the Japanese government in 1949 as an International Peace Memorial City, a policy which Shinji, and his daughter wholeheartedly endorsed.
The last section of the book before the Afterword contains the most powerful lesson for the author and ultimately for us, the readers. It is a lesson which Doctor Mikami’s father, Shinji, learnt from his own father, Fukuichi, which is the importance of empathy.
In the Afterword, the author writes that we, as human beings, have a choice to “react” (I would prefer to use the word “respond” in this context) to negative experiences with compassion and forgiveness and to see how the other side views things. Her comments here echo those of Viktor Frankl, the German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that,
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
For Doctor Mikami, the appropriate response is the “surprisingly powerful and liberating” one of empathy because with empathy “you allow yourself room and energy to grow and heal”.
For the author, the very fact that she is alive today seems somewhat miraculous, and her life is informed by a deep sense of purpose, which is to convey the message that yesterday’s worst enemies can be today’s best friends.
As we observe the current civil war in Syria, that may seem unlikely, but Doctor Akiko Mikami, who lives and works in San Diego, is herself a living testimony to the realism of such a belief. In 2011, following the devastating earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster that struck Japan, the USA launched “Operation Tomodachi” – “the single largest humanitarian relief effort in American history”.
On 6th January 2013 a group of 12 students travelled with their professor from Soka University of America to Japan and Korea to investigate the role that Hiroshima, nuclear energy and atomic bomb victims can play in creating a peaceful world.
The group visited Seoul and Hiroshima and met with atom bomb survivors and groups in both cities, which provided the group with an opportunity to engage with survivors from different backgrounds and with different perspectives.
While in Hiroshima, the group also visited Peace Park, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, and Hiroshima City University, where Professor Mikyoung Kim gave a lecture on the history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the post-war politicization of bombings.
On Wednesday 9th January the group visited the ANT-Hiroshima office where Tomoko Watanabe gave a talk about Hiroshima and how the story of the survivors can give hope to other people around the world today who have come through wars or natural disasters, as well as helping to motivate people who want to work towards creating a peaceful world.
The group also had an opportunity to do some site seeing, explore Hiroshima and visit Miyajima before returning to Seoul to complete their studies.
Here is a documentary film the group made about their trip:
The group also made a very informative and interesting resource website about their trip which is well worth checking out:
Hiroshima, The Victims And The Questions Of Peace Learning Cluster
“Visiting both Korea and Japan, we learned various perspectives on the three issues we studied. It was interesting to meet and talk with hibakusha and NGOs working for nuclear power abolition or nuclear disarmament in both countries. We were able to recognize how different the situation was and still is for the Korean and Japanese hibakusha. Also, there were differences even in NGOs working towards the same goal.”
The manga was created by Keiji Nakazawa is based on his own experiences as a Hiroshima a-bomb survivor. Just like Gen, Keiji Nakazawa was a schoolboy in Hiroshima in August 1945.
The story begins in 1945 in Hiroshima where the six-year-old Gen lives with his family. Gen lives with his father and mother and his older sister and younger brother. Gen’s mother is pregnant at the time of the a-bombing. Gen has just arrived at school when the bomb explodes. Protected by a wall, he survives and rushes home through the destroyed city, witnessing many horrific scenes of death, destruction and suffering as he goes.
When he gets back home he discovers his father, brother and sister are buried alive beneath the ruins of their house. His mother is in the street, desperate to help them, but she and Gen are unable to pull them free before they are consumed by the advancing flames.
This clip from the animated film version of Barefoot Gen shows the moment when the bomb exploded and what happened to Gen immediately after:
The Barefoot Gen manga series follows the fortunes of Gen as he survives the immediate aftermath of the bombing and struggles to build a new future for himself, his mother and a young boy whom they adopt into their family.
Keiji Nakazawa began creating manga about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. His first story, Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain), was about Hiroshima a-bomb survivors and the postwar black market. In 1972, Nakazawa wrote directly about his own experience in a manga story titled Ore wa Mita (I Saw It), published in monthly comic compilation, Shounen Jump.
After that, he began work on Barefoot Gen. Barefoot Gen is notable not only for the graphic account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but also for its criticisms of Japanese militarism and wartime propaganda. In the first volume of the ten volume series, Gen’s father is arrested and beaten up in custody for expressing anti-war sentiments and Gen has a difficult time of it at school as a result.
Hadashi no Gen has been translated into several languages and was one of the first manga to be published in English. Several film versions have also been made.
Recently, Keiji Nakazawa agreed to be interviewed by Tomoko Watanabe of ANT-Hiroshima about his experiences in Hiroshima and in the aftermath of the Second World War in Japan. The interviews were filmed and made into a documentary DVD, released by Tomoko Corporation.The film, Hadashi no Gen ga Mita Hiroshima – Hiroshima as Seen by Barefoot Gen– will be shown in Hiroshima and Tokyo at special showings during August 2011. Click here for details.
The DVD may be purchased via the Tomoko Corporation website – please note that at present only the Japanese version is available.
On 29th March, 2011, Hiroshima A-bomb survivor, Hashizume Bun, responded to the unfolding news of the Fukushima nuclear crisis by writing the following “Appeal to the People of Japan and the People of the World”
My name is Hashizume Bun and I am an A-bomb survivor of Hiroshima. I live in Tokyo and I am now 80 years old. When the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, which triggered the crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, I was in the midst of writing about the radiation exposure wrought by the atomic bombing of 66 years ago and about the lives of Hiroshima citizens before and after the blast.
Though much of my writing had already been completed, I was deeply pained by the accident involving the Fukushima nuclear plant and I felt that I would like to conclude my thoughts—and share this conclusion in English as well—from the vantage point of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, my hometown.
When the earthquake struck, I was in Tokyo; afterwards, I came to Hiroshima. When I reached the A-bombed city, it was late at night and I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders. It took a moment for me to take my first steps.
Every time I return to Hiroshima, I first visit the memorials standing in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and I speak to my family members, friends, acquaintances, and other victims who perished in the unimaginable horror of the atomic bombing. This time, however, I asked them to hear my wish, rather than my prayer.
On the day of the atomic bombing, I was exposed to the bomb’s radiation at a location 1.5 kilometers from the hypocenter. I was also injured severely, but I managed to survive the blast with the help of others.
After the war, I lived in a makeshift hut in the burned-out city and I suffered from acute symptoms of radiation exposure, including a high fever, bleeding from my gums, dreadful diarrhea, vomiting, purple spots that covered my body, and hair loss. It was a miracle that I again survived.
Since that time, right up to today, I have suffered from a series of illnesses and I have never enjoyed a single day of fine health.
Among the many illnesses, one has been particularly difficult. The symptom of this “A-bomb disease” is unbearable fatigue. I begged my doctor to make me feel fresh and light again, if only for a day, if only for an hour, but it did not happen. When I went to sleep at night, I prayed to God: “Don’t let me wake up tomorrow.”
All this poor health was caused by internal exposure to the bomb’s radiation. Once radioactive materials are ingested in the body through contaminated water, food, or air, these substances continue to be radioactive without end, destroying the body’s cells and damaging genes. This is a lifelong fate.
I did not know until my recent visit to Hiroshima that the substance called “Cesium,” which has been a familiar talking point of the media these days, damages the muscles and induces the awful “A-bomb disease.”
People who were doused by the black rain or entered the city to aid the relief efforts or search for the missing all became victims of internal exposure. And beyond the A-bomb survivors, those who have suffered nuclear tests or accidents at nuclear power plants are also victims of internal exposure to radiation.
Information about internal exposure to radiation has been hidden from the public for a long time. Since the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the expression “internal exposure to radiation” is finally being uttered, but no detailed explanations have been forthcoming. Revealing such information will make it difficult for the government to continue pursuing nuclear energy
Nuclear energy had once been praised as “clean energy,” even “ideal energy,” but this enthusiasm cooled somewhat after the accidents at the nuclear power plants at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. In recent years, however, many nations have been constructing nuclear power plants and the age has been dubbed a “renaissance” of nuclear energy. As I watched this phenomenon unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that one day, not far in the future, there would undoubtedly be another accident at a nuclear power plant somewhere in the world.
That accident has occurred in my own country, and the crippled nuclear plant is now continuously leaking a large volume of radioactive materials into the environment. There is no foolproof way to stop it, and no end to the crisis is in sight. In the small nation of Japan, which suffers from frequent earthquakes, more than 50 nuclear reactors have been built. These nuclear reactors loom mainly in depopulated areas, on sites within active earthquake zones.
The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake has compromised the six reactors at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Experts warn that further earthquakes of this magnitude—earthquakes that will strike in the vicinity of other nuclear power plants—will occur with 100% certainty in the none-too-distant future.
To the people of Japan, I ask: Will we simply accept the fact that Japan, the A-bombed nation, ultimately brings about a catastrophe of worldwide radiation exposure?
Time is of the essence. We must work together to halt the nuclear power plants now in operation. People of the world, join hands and speak out to stop the construction of any additional nuclear power plants, speak out to shut down every nuclear power plant on earth.
As an A-bomb survivor, I have long been opposed to nuclear energy in Japan and internationally. This is because I have feared not only nuclear bombs, but also the possibility that one day nuclear energy would destroy all life on the planet. Even operable nuclear power plants are continuously releasing small amounts of radioactive materials into the environment, contaminating the soil, the sea, and the sky. The danger of these small amounts of radioactive materials is being concealed, too.
Human beings are not the only living things. Is it not arrogance for human beings to sacrifice other living things simply for our own benefit? Would it not be wiser for human beings to seek harmony with nature? Humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries is offered only a moment in the long history of our species. That brief moment has been bequeathed by our ancestors, which we, in turn, bequeath to our descendants.
Like the A-bomb survivors, and the sufferers of nuclear tests and nuclear power plant accidents, the victims of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant will face suffering throughout their lives. The people displaced by the multiple disasters in eastern Japan are braving difficult days in shelters. But even amid such conditions, the children retain their innocence and hope and I am moved and find hope in them.
Radiation is especially damaging to children and their growth. Nevertheless, the Japanese government and electric power companies say they will persist in the construction of more nuclear power plants in Japan, in this small nation continually shaken by earthquakes.
Radiation respects no border. To save our children, the future of our species, I call on the people of Japan, and the people of the world, to stand together and oppose the continuation of nuclear energy.