Hiroshima Notebooks, by Kenzaburo Oé. (Second Issue)

By Francisco Laborde
English Trans. by Ma. Teresa Vidaurre

Brief introduction

6 de Agosto, 8:15 de la mañana. La vida se detuvo en Hiroshima tal como lo muestra este reloj de pulsera. Foto: AP. Archivo de las Naciones Unidas.
August 6, 8:15 am. Life stopped in Hiroshima as shown in this wrist watch. Photo: AP. United Nations file.

In the first issue, we shared the general purposes of the Hiroshima Notebooks, by Kenzaburo Oé, and basic information regarding the nuclear explosions and the radiation effects on living beings. We presented the first testimonies of the hibakusha, the atomic bomb survivors.

Next, we will share more stories about common victims, average Japanese people, that impressed Oé because of the moral content that they have, because of the profound human dignity contained in their conducts. This is about the victims stories and, mainly, about doctors that survived and who, immediately, built the first laboratory to study the radiation effects on human beings, a phenomenon that humanity had not faced before, it was not even known by then. Among the stories we also include, as an appendix, Kenzaburo Oé’s personal story, his relation with the atomic bomb.

The keloid scars

“…he could only consider his body to be a territory for repairs,
in other words, as something that does not exist, but that is preparing to exist.”
Jorge Baron Biza
(The desert and its seed)

The keloid scars symbolize the lost beauty. They caused a lot of suffering to the atomic bomb survivors that got them, in many cases, they brought deep shame that walled their existence. Due to their deformed faces, the amount of young women who locked themselves in their rooms was very large (doctor Shingetô, who we will mention again further on, counted “thousands” of them,) and being locked up they rejected medical attention or appropriate protection. They died, just like that, depressed and faster.

They could not find a partner, their social life had been amputated. This consequence, apparently minor, esthetical, was extremely painful for those people, who did not go out to the streets to avoid feeling humiliated by the curious looks of others, or they underwent endless chirurgical reconstructive processes. “Living stuck between a lost past and a threatening despair can make a person suffer a profound neurosis.”[1]

In The Hiroshima Rivers, a magazine published by the Hiroshima Mothers Group against nuclear weapons and that gathered testimonies of the victims, Oé found out many stories of elders that had lost their families. From the next testimony we learn about a young man ashamed of his keloid scars.

            That sickness was so terrible that we felt sorrow only by looking at it. My daughter, Nanako, was eager to continue living for the sake of her newborn child Mamiko (…), but at the end, she could not be saved. And that is not all. After Nanako died, my 26-year-old son, Hiromi, still lived. He had keloid scars in his hands and head. For that reason, he could not get married and, therefore, he tried to commit suicide many times. [2]

The inversion of what is natural

This following testimony, also taken from The Hiroshima Rivers, is a story from another elder:

My two nephews that lived in the Toriya district were able to escape and survive, but they managed to do it completely naked. They spent the night in Eba [located at 2.8 miles south of the explosion epicenter,] and someone offered them a yukata, a type of kimono that is worn during Summer, they ripped it apart to use it to cover their bodies. They looked so pitiful that the landlord despised them as if they were infected with something contagious. The younger one died first. Then, the older one. Before dying she begged me: “Aunt, kill me before I turn into something as horrible as her.” Those two young kids died leaving me, the elder, completely alone. [3]

This testimony and the one aforementioned deal with the same sorrow: “an elder that has to survive alone while the young people are all dead. How many times have I listened to the same complaint repeated many times in Hiroshima about the inversion of the natural course of life? I dare saying that in the look of those who grief I did not observe fear as much as I observed a sort of embarrassment. That is what makes me shudder.”[4]

The second-generation problem

A young mother, who was exposed to the atomic bomb explosion when she was only a newborn, died at the age of 18 without fulfilling her dream of living a normal live. She died suffering from an acute myeloid leukemia. She died as many other young mothers victims of the atomic bomb did, shortly after giving birth to a normal child.

“Those mothers endured twice as much worry: they feared that their children could suffer adverse side effects, and they also feared that they could die after giving birth because of a sickness derived from the bomb. Despite all this, the girl that was at the end of her adolescence fell in love, got married and had a child. I think that being that much brave while facing such a desperate worry could be defined as something truly humane.”[5]

When Kenzaburo Oé wrote these chronicles, the consequences of the atomic bomb revolved around the next generation of patients like a ghost haunting them. The worrying matter about possible genetic alterations in the atomic bomb victims’ children was just recently considered.

Another young mother “gave birth to a deformed lifeless child. The mother, also victim of the atomic bomb, had suffered burns that later turned into keloid scars. She was ready for the worst. Despite everything, she wanted to look at her baby. When the doctor prevented it, she asked her husband to go see the baby in her place. The man went to see his baby and he found out that the hospital staff had already disposed the body. The young mother grieved: If only they have allowed me to see my baby, that would have given me courage. I felt downhearted when I heard the word courage among her mournful and hopeless words. (…) The fact that they reject abortion and choose to continue with the pregnancy shows so much bravery that it reached the bottom of my heart.”[6]

Madre e hijo luchando por seguir adelante, un día después de la caída de la bomba en Nagasaki. 10 de agosto de 1945. Foto: AP
A mother and child struggle to go on living, August 10, 1945, a day after the atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. (AP Photo/United Nations)

The doctors, those silent heroes

Until August 6, 1945, when the human being dropped the atomic bomb, there was no need of wondering about the radiation effects on people. Hiroshima was the laboratory for sicknesses derived from the radiation. The doctors obviously lacked specific knowledge about radioactivity, and they had to base their creative work on the trial and error approach. Like the patients that were agonizing in their arms, they did not know what caused the pains and symptoms that many patients had in common. Contaminated medicines for contaminated patients.

Doctors, dentists, pharmacists, midwives, and nurses were bounded by the Rescue and Aerial Defense Ordinance (1943) to stay in the city after a disaster occurred. Nonetheless, it was not necessary to enforce this law. Voluntarily and immediately, the hibakusha, especially the doctors, “devoted themselves to their tasks without no one ordering them to do so, and they properly carried out the activities needed to assist the victims.”[7] When the bomb exploded, there were 298 doctors in Hiroshima, out of which 60 died instantly, and many others during the following days. The sanitary personnel that survived included 28 doctors, 20 dentists, 28 pharmacists and 130 nurses.

hir2The immediate actions that the doctors and the Hiroshima emergency personnel carried out after the great disaster were brilliant and impressive. They provided medical attention to 100 thousand patients that were in the city and needed to be treated urgently. A handful of doctors tried to deal “with the enormous necessities in the desolated Hiroshima. There was a young dentists that committed suicide out of pure despair. He joined the helping team despite his hands being fractured and his body being half burnt. He got too exhausted and experienced a nervous breakdown.”[8]

Among the diverse information that the doctors systematized, there is the Atomic Bomb Medical Attention Case History, a research project that entailed a questionnaire addressed to every doctor in Hiroshima. From the answers came up a long list of fatal names and descriptions; herein we quote the following two stories:

Nobuo Satake, deceased (Fujimicho 2-chome; 0.7 miles [away from the explosion epicenter.]) He was in Fujimicho 2 when the bomb exploded. His head was injured externally. During many years he worked part-time, and even that day, he continued offering the medical attention that was needed to help the personnel from a clothing warehouse. On September 7, his wife died suffering symptoms of radiation sickness. Around September 10, he also developed many symptoms due to the same cause (for example, hair loss, subcutaneous bleedings, fever,) and he was forced to stop providing emergency assistance. The symptoms lasted three more weeks.[9]

Kunitami Kunitomo, deceased (Hakushima-kukensho; 1 mile.) He was in his home when the bomb exploded. He was buried under the remains of the house (the whole house and its furniture burnt down,) but he managed to escape crawling to the river shore that was behind the house, and he spent the night there. The next day (August 7,) still wearing a bloodstained shirt, he started helping the victims in the first-aid point located in the Kana bridge. Around four months later, he moved to Etajima, an island in Hiroshima’s bay. His initial injuries were followed by other symptoms: general fatigue, appetite loss, hair loss, and an intense itching in his whole body. From the Spring of 1948, ulcers and red-purple eczemas appeared on his skin; the symptoms were treated in many ways. Finally, he died due to symptoms of radiation sickness on March 1949. (This information was provided by his family.)[10]

As these examples demonstrate, the doctors from Hiroshima helped and aided the victims immediately despite having suffered injuries or having lost relatives. In his reports, Doctor Yoshimasa Matsusaka described how these first-aid points looked. During that time he was the director of the Hiroshima Prefecture Medical Association:

I escaped death miraculously but I thought that I should help the defenseless citizens that were injured. I could not stand on my own feet and my son, a medical student from that epoch, carried me on his back to the East Police Station. There he pulled out a chair and sat me. Afterwards, he raised the Rising Sun Flag in a flagpole that was next to our improvised help point. From that moment on, we started working together with three nurses and other people from the neighborhood that were in conditions to help. (When we were looking where to take refuge away from the possible bombarding zones, my family packed in a bag a volunteer guard uniform, a firefighter’s helmet, a watch, two thousand yens, a pair of tabi socks and an imperial flag; all these items ended being very useful.)

Although it was called medical attention, the truth was that all the stored medicines were burnt. In the police station there was only a little bit of mercurochrome and oil. When needed, we could only apply oil to the burns and mercurochrome to the open injuries of those thousands of people that were hurt and congregated there. [11]

Doctor Fumio Shigetô arrived at Hiroshima to assume the director position of the Red Cross Hospital at the end of July, 1945, only one week before the bomb exploded. “He was exposed to the explosion and was injured while waiting in the line to get on a streetcar. He suffered minor injuries due to the powerful flash of the explosion. Anyways, I cannot rest as the other victims did. In an open space in front of the hospital, thousands of corpses were piled up and incinerated every day. He had to keep up with his work giving directions to the other doctors and nurses, all of them also affected by the bomb explosion and in charge of providing medical attention to the dying people. As if it was not enough, the hospital building was also seriously damaged. Doctor Shigetô is a man of action, burly and with a big heart. He has features of a peasant and a sincere and deep voice. He had to work very hard and tiredly during the first days that followed the explosion. Despite everything, he managed to dedicate some time to study the yet unknown effects of the atomic bomb. The little time that he could take out off his obligations in the hospital was used to continue working in his research, to visiting the bombarded areas, to collecting stones and burnt tiles. (…) doctor Shigetô gathered all those materials with his own hands and resources. In midst of an odd and exciting act of friendship, an elder victim of the bomb donated all the affected bones of his body to this medical research.”[12]

Shigetô, interested in radiology when he was a student, discovered that the plates stored in the hospital basement were clearly exposed to the bomb radiation. In this way, he was one of the first Japanese people to recognize its radioactive nature.[13] “From that day until today, he has continued researching at the same time that he has devoted himself to the patients treatments. He accumulates medical experience and observation and never stops adding new discoveries that help him determine the nature of the sicknesses derived from the atomic radiation and fight them. In the beginning, he thought that these sicknesses could be cured during the course of some years, until he discovered that leukemia was one of these sicknesses. Rest assured that this atomic aggression has been one of the greatest disasters that have occurred to mankind, and there is no way of finding out how radiation affects our human bodies besides the discoveries achieved in the lab in the course of the current varied clinical situations. Seven years of endless and thorough research passed by before a strong connection between leukemia and radiation could be demonstrated. (…) In his opinion, and as a result of the contact that he currently maintains with his patients, the connection between radiation and cancer was clear.”[14]

Doctor Shigetô, being the director of the Atomic Bomb Hospital, is probably the most mentioned and admired hibakusha in the Hiroshima Notebooks. He is the man who got the closest to the atomic bomb victims, and who, in addition, worked continuously to carry out policies to help responsibly. He refers to himself as a used handkerchief: “it is useful to filter the political purposes and separates them from the concrete efforts to help, in this way, the effects on the patients were pure and exclusively humane.”[15]

Kenzaburo Oé finds the “true Hiroshima” [16] in those kind of people like doctor Shigetô. He sees in him the dignity “of a pure person, without conceit. (…) he is always making an effort to try his best without asking anything or without relying on the external authorities.”[17] “This type of genuine humanists were the ones that were needed in Hiroshima during that Summer in 1945. Luckily, they were there during that time. They were the first reason that built up hopes to survive in the middle of the most desolated and deserted landscape that mankind has ever experienced or contemplated.”[18]

Cicatrices queloides de Kiyoshi Kikkawa. 1947. Estuvo hospitalizado hasta 1951. Fue nombrado "Víctima Nº 1 de la Bomba-A" por la prensa estadounidense. Tan solo un número.
Kiyoshi Kikkawa keloid’s scars. 1947. He was hospitalized until 1951. Was called “A-bomb Victim No. 1” by the U.S. press. Just a number.

The tricky trust in humanity’s fortitude

We were sure that
the bacteriologists would find a way
to overcome this new germ,
just as they had overcome
other germs in the past.[19]

Jack London (The Scarlet Plague)

According to Oé, there is a type of humanism that “has to do with a especial kind of trust in humanity’s ability to endure hardship.” Oé confesses that he does not empathize with that type of humanism because he considers it as the one that illuminated the spirits of the North American intellectuals and politicians that carried on the Manhattan Project.

“It is a humanism that reasons in the following way: if an absolute lethal bomb is dropped over Hiroshima, hell will be unleashed from a perfectly predicable scientific perspective. However, that hell will not be as completely disastrous as to wipe out, once and for all, all the good things that are contained in human society. It will not ever prevent the possibility to recover. In this way, humanity is not forced to despise itself only by thinking about this. It will not be a continuous hell without an exit; neither an evil so devastating that it would prevent the president Truman from getting to sleep whenever he thinks about it. After all, for sure there is people in Hiroshima capable of transforming that hell into something as humane as possible (…) I think that who planned the atomic bomb had similar thoughts.”[20]

The strong trust in humanity’s fortitude is an element that must have been considered politically and militarily by the United States when they ordered the nuclear attack over Japan: “when the final decision was made, they trusted in their enemy’s fortitude. That fortitude that will allow them to deal with that hell that was about to be unleashed when the bomb was dropped. If that is was they thought, theirs was a very paradoxical humanism.”[21]

Now, let us imagine for a brief moment that the atomic bomb was dropped over Congo, Haiti or Buenos Aires, populations with less infrastructure, integration and “sense of honor and independence.”[22] “To begin with, an enormous amount of people would have died instantly; then, the injured survivors forced to accept their complete surrender would have continued dying during many following months. Epidemics and plagues would have spread among the desolated ruins. The whole city would have turned into a wasteland were human beings would have perish endlessly and without possible assistance or help.”[23]

Maybe this kind of people who “believe that in this world harmony and human order can recover the balance at the end” think this way to avoid remorse. However, “the attempt of attributing it a positive value as a way of ending the war immediately did not even bring peace to the souls of the aviators in charge of transporting the bomb to its destiny. The atomic bomb personified war’s absolute evils and transcended minor distinctions such as Japanese or allies, the aggressors and the aggressed ones.”[24]

Appendix: Kenzaburo Oé, a bit of a jerk.

On April, 2004, Kenzaburo Oé presented his novel Somersault in Casa Asia in Barcelona, and the outstanding chronicler Juan Villoro was there. [25] Villoro told us that the first thing that Oé did that day was to show his pleasure for presenting his book in the Tagore Auditorium, his mother’s favorite writer. He also told us that when Oé received the Nobel Prize, “a television team traveled to the remote village where his mother lived to get to know her impressions. Mrs. Oé said proudly that the genius Tagore was well honored with the Nobel Prize. The interviewer, surprised, mentioned that other two Japanese had also received one, and that one of them was her son. She replied: I am not interested in Kawabata; and regarding Oé, he is a bit of a jerk.”

During that conference and a later literary gathering, Oé mentioned repeatedly in his speeches the protective image of his mother. And it was during that later gathering, before about twenty people, that Oé confessed for the first time this autobiographical fact that linked him forever with Hiroshima. Villoro narrates that when Oé was a child, “his mother had a relationship with a younger woman. In Japan in that epoch, it could be considered an illicit relationship, the novelist smiled. After some time passed, the young woman decided to get married and moved to Hiroshima. As a goodbye gift, Oé’s mother gave her an Italian pine. Oé as a kid never forgot that red wood unusual pine. When the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, his mother took a boat and sailed up the river looking for her friend. Where her friend used to live, she found a piece of wasteland without any trail. Oé went to the harbor to welcome her mother on her arrival. He saw her arriving covered in tears and asked her in a sarcastic tone: did you find the Italian pine?”

That night Oé explained that was the reason why his mother called him a bit of a jerk when he received the Nobel Prize. It was due to that old resentment held towards the bomb as atomic epicenter of the story. It was only when Oé had a disabled son and his mother offered to take care of him, that they ended this distancing that lasted many years. In a way, his mother’s proscribed love, her suffering for her lost, and that childish rancor of the chronicler represent different sides of the same tragedy.

This story, that also involves the chronicler, concludes this handful of chronicles about human improvement and dignity. Oé focused on portraying the “broken lives” of Hiroshima, and he became a loudspeaker for the hibakusha. He dedicated a significant part of his live to tell the stories about the fate of the survivors, and among those stories he found himself, and a red pine that was burnt to ashes by the explosion of the bomb.

La lucha continúa. El 9 de marzo de 2013 Kenzaburo Oé (abajo, a la derecha) se une a una manifestación anti nuclear en Tokio.
The battle goes on. On March 9, 2013, Kenzaburo Oé (front, right) joins an anti nuclear rally in Tokyo.



[1] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 115.
[2] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 34.
[3] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 34.
[4] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 97-98.
[5] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 79.
[6] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 88-89.
[7] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 126.
[8] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 127.
[9] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 130-131
[10] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 131-132.
[11] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 132-133.
[12] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 45-46.
[13] The discovery of fogged photographic films was one of the arguments presented by the Japanese atomic physicist Yoshio Nishina in order to confirm that the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasagi were nuclear weapons. Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 205.
[14] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… pp. 46-47.
[15] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 79.
[16] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 58.
[17] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p. 109.
[18] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos… p.137.
[19] Jack London. (1912). The Scarlet Plague, as published in London Magazine, 28. Retrieved on July 21, 2014 from: http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/Scarlet/
[20] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos…pp. 124-125.
[21] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos…p. 125.
[22] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos…p. 170.
[23] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos…p. 125.
[24] Kenzaburo Oé. Cuadernos…p. 123.
[25] Juan Villoro. “Las dos versiones de Oé”. Letras Libres: http://www.letraslibres.com/revista/tertulia/las-dos-versiones-de-oe

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