In this concluding part of a two-part article which forms the introduction to the memoir of a Nagasaki bombing victim, historian Peter Kuznick shows why the bombs were dropped and how some victims’ anger propelled the Japanese anti-nuclear movement
UNDER MacArthurs’s command, GHQ officials worked hard to assist Nagasaki’s Catholics during the postwar reconstruction of the city, paving the way for the city’s new identity — an identity that Nagasaki governor Sojiro Sugiyama happily embraced two years after the bombing when he declared, ‘Nagasaki is the land of Christian martyrdom.’ As a result, the saying caught on that ‘Ikari no Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki’ — ‘Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays.’
Others could not forgive
TANIGUCHI was part of a different Nagasaki. He raged rather than prayed. When I met him in 1998, the year that my American University students and I first added Nagasaki to our study tour in Hiroshima and Kyoto, I asked him what he thought about Harry Truman. He minced no words in expressing his deep disdain for Truman. He expressed no hint of being willing to forgive those responsible for the atomic bombing, which he considered cruel and unjust, even barbaric. He saw nothing positive resulting from the suffering that he and others had undergone and deplored the nuclear sword of Damocles that has hung over all humanity since August 1945. There is nothing nuanced, ambivalent, or qualified about his feelings on this topic. As he writes in his memoirs, ‘There are people who made the atomic bomb, people who ordered its production, people who ordered its use, and people who rejoiced at its use. I don’t regard these people as humans.’
Taniguchi spoke to my students almost every August between 1998 and his death. His testimony was powerful. It was also unforgettable. That his presentation to my students focused largely on the 1945–1949 period is completely understandable. He was horribly burned in the bombing of Nagasaki. He was a 16-year-old postal worker delivering mail on his bike when the bomb exploded. Burns covered his entire back. He remained bedridden, lying on his stomach, for one year and nine months. The pain was so intense and unrelenting that he begged nurses and doctors to kill him.
‘Lying on my stomach with my chest wounds pressed down into the bed — the pain was excruciating,’ he recalled. The bedsores covering his chest, back, sides, jaw, and knees were so deep that portions of his heart and ribs were exposed. He could not move his neck or right arm. Pus poured from his maggot-infested wounds. Though no one expected him to live, he did and on March 20, 1949, three years and seven months after the bombing, he was finally discharged from the hospital.
Marine Sergeant Joe O’Donnell arrived in Nagasaki soon after the bombing with orders to provide a photographic record of the bombing’s aftermath. He arrived at the temporary relief hospital at Shinkozen, to which Taniguchi had been moved, on September 15. There he encountered the horribly burned teenager. O’Donnell photographed Taniguchi’s burned body. He recalled, ‘I waved the flies away with a handkerchief, then carefully brushed out the maggots, careful not to touch the boy’s skin with my hand. The smell made me sick and my heart ached for his suffering, particularly because he was so young. I decided then that I would not take other pictures of burned victims unless ordered to do so.’
O’Donnell hid 300 images from US occupation authorities and brought them back to the United States, where he stored them in a trunk for nearly a half century before ginning up the courage to look at them. Even then, he found them so disturbing that he joined the ranks of activists fighting to abolish nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, despite being in constant pain, Taniguchi tried to resume a normal life. On April 1, 1949, he returned to work. His back, which had not yet completely healed, was covered with scars. His legs and bottom were covered with keloids. He had limited movement in his left arm. The left side of his chest was deeply gouged from the bedsores. As he writes in this memoir, he felt ‘hatred towards war and the atomic bomb’ and ‘profound anger’ toward government authorities and adults in general for the wartime lies that he and others had been fed.
SO THIS is no tale of Christian forgiveness. Taniguchi knew who and what to blame and stated it openly. Among the targets of his anger was the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), which the US occupation authorities set up in Hiroshima in 1947 and Nagasaki in 1948 not to treat the atomic bomb victims but to study them. Initially curious about the research, he volunteered to be studied. But after being examined, he was told, ‘No abnormality existed.’ No abnormality? Incredulous and furious at this ‘truly merciless human experimentation,’ he never again set foot at the ABCC. Like so many other Hibakusha, he was outraged over the humiliating treatment he received.
Back at work in the Telegraph Office, he faced discrimination from both management and fellow employees. The better educated and higher paid office workers looked down upon the delivery workers. On one occasion, when Taniguchi and other telegraph delivery workers formed a band to play music at the send-off for a fellow worker who had been drafted, the office workers mocked their poor performance.
‘They treated us like idiots, and I was so angry,’ Taniguchi recalled, adding, ‘We took them to a shrine behind our office and beat them up.’ Taniguchi was clearly not one to turn the other cheek or behave like a ‘sacrificial lamb.’ He joined the labor movement to fight for equal wages, explaining, ‘I could not stand the discrimination I witnessed against equal human beings.’ His colleagues, he reported, ‘often said I had a strong sense of justice or that I had guts.’ In Taniguchi’s case, it was not an either/or. He had both.
But Taniguchi had not yet gotten involved in Japan’s fledgling anti-nuclear movement. The Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb tests in March 1954 would change that. The uproar over the nuclear contamination of the crew members aboard the Lucky Dragon No. 5 fishing vessel convinced Taniguchi that the time was right to organise for the abolition of atomic and hydrogen bombs. On October 1, 1955, he, his friend Senji Yamaguchi, and 14 other atomic bomb survivors who had also had surgery at Nagasaki University founded the Nagasaki A-Bomb Youth Association.
FROM its inception, the association worked closely with the Nagasaki A-Bomb Maidens Association. The two organisations merged in May 1956, forming the Nagasaki A-Bomb Youth and Maidens Association with Yamaguchi as president and Taniguchi as vice-president. The next month, in June 1956, saw the formation of the Nagasaki Council of A-Bomb Survivors (Nagasaki Hisaikyo), which Taniguchi would chair for many years before stepping down in 2017.
Hisaikyo often joined forces with Gensuikyo, the Japan Council against A and H Bombs, which had formed in September 1955 from the merger of the World Conference against A and H Bombs, the National Council for the Signature Campaign Against A and H Bombs, and the Organising Committee for the World Conference. Japan was abuzz with anti-nuclear activity and Taniguchi was in the forefront of the organising efforts.
Though active in the anti-nuclear movement, Taniguchi had not yet spoken publicly about his own struggles as a victim of the bombing. In August 1956, he attended the World Conference Against A and H Bombs in Nagasaki. On August 9, Chieko Watanabe addressed the assembly of 3,000 people on behalf of the Youth and Maidens Association. As a 16-year old, Watanabe had been mobilised as a student and was working at the Mitsubishi Electric Manufacturing Company when the bomb exploded. A steel beam fell, breaking her spine and leaving her a paraplegic.
For 10 years, she remained secluded in her home until four A-bomb maidens visited her. At the World Conference, her mother carried her to the podium, from which she tearfully pleaded, ‘Please look at me in this miserable condition. We must be the last victims of atomic bombs. Dear friends from around the world, please work together and abolish all A and H bombs.’ All, including Taniguchi, were deeply moved. The entire hall, he writes, ‘exploded with applause.’ This was particularly moving, he remembered, because ‘in fear of discrimination and prejudice, the hibakusha had kept their mouths shut for a long time.’
Taniguchi’s opportunity came the next day in front of a smaller workshop. It was a life-changing experience. He writes, with simple elegance, ‘Words began to pour from my lips as though a dam inside me had broken—what had happened on ‘that day,’ the three years and seven months of hospitalisation, the pain on my back, and the accumulated suffering and resentment. It was the very first time I had spoken in front of a large number of people, and I was not sure if my talk conveyed what I wanted, but I received great applause from the audience.’
That day was not only a milestone for Taniguchi, it was a milestone for all Hibakusha, 800 of whom attended the conference. The attendees founded the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Survivors Organisations (Nihon Hidankyo), which would go on to lead the fight for Hibakusha medical care and other rights and benefits. Taniguchi would later become a co-chairperson of Hidankyo.
Taniguchi’s memoir operates on at least two distinct though tightly intertwined levels. On the one hand, it is the story of his involvement in and leadership of the anti-nuclear movement. In that regard, it provides revealing new insight into the history of the antinuclear movement in Japan. Over the years, Taniguchi worked with virtually all the leading Hibakusha and antinuclear organisations. He saw the squabbles and feuds and played the role of peacemaker, understanding that the common interests and objectives far outweighed the differences and that in unity there was strength. And the movement, he believed, had not gotten the credit it deserves.
While the movement has not succeeded in eliminating nuclear weapons as it has striven to do, the Hibakusha, through their prominent and highly visible participation, have helped stigmatise nuclear weapons and convince the world that such weapons should never again be used.
ON THE other hand, it is the story of the extraordinary challenges Taniguchi faced socially and psychologically to deal with the personal tragedy that almost destroyed his life. Among the challenges that he and so many other Hibakusha faced was dealing with the often disfiguring physical scars that the bombings had caused. In the memoir, Taniguchi describes the persisting sense of shame he felt when people stared at the scars on his face. He tells of his insecurity around women, which was reinforced by being rejected for marriage by five or six different potential partners. He tells of marrying Eiko ten days after meeting her and the trepidation he felt during their honeymoon, fearing she would leave him after seeing his horribly scarred body. They remained happily married for more than 60 years before Eiko passed away in 2016 at age 86.
Taniguchi’s sense of shame at being seen in public was eased somewhat by plastic surgery. But the thought of taking his shirt off in public, even at the beach, continued to mortify him. In the summer of 1956, male and female members of the Youth and Maidens Association went by boat to a secluded beach, where, for the first time, they were able to shed their clothes in public without having people stare at them scornfully. Taniguchi recalls, ‘As hibakusha with visible scars, we had been afraid to show our bodies in bathing suits for fear that people would look at us coldly and with disgust.’ But since they were all Hibakusha, the inhibition was gone. ‘We were so excited,’ he writes, ‘like little children.’
The thought of exposing his body in front of non-Hibakusha, however, was still unimaginable to him. Finally, one day, a co-worker urged him to shed his long-sleeve shirt at the beach and he decided he was ready to take the plunge. As he ran topless to the beach, he ‘knew people were staring at me in surprise but I didn’t care. I was crying in my heart, “Look at me and think about why I became like this. Don’t turn your face away.”’
But Taniguchi’s life changed dramatically in 1970 when the Asahi Shimbun published a photo taken by a US soldier on January 31, 1946 of Taniguchi’s raw, red, scarred back as he grimaced in pain. The photo came from 16mm color film footage that had been found in the US National Archives. A week later, the shocking footage was broadcast on Japanese television. Up to that point, Taniguchi had been active in the anti-nuclear movement but had not been a prominent national leader. However, when a British TV crew came to interview him, he removed his shirt and displayed his scarred body. After that, his life would never be the same. He was catapulted into a leadership position and was in constant demand as a speaker. The image of his back became one of the most universally recognised reminders of the horrors of nuclear war and his passionate involvement in both the fight for Hibakusha rights and the nuclear abolition movement have, as he himself and other Hibakusha say, ‘brought him back to life again’ and imbued his life with special meaning.
When Taniguchi addressed my students, as he did with other groups, he held up the large color photo of his raw red back. The photo itself is more than most students can bear. And then he removed his shirt, revealing a heart that could be seen beating through his ribs and a back covered with scars. The natural instinct of the students was to turn away, but, out of respect, they tried to choke back their tears and not avert their gaze, looking at Taniguchi’s disfigurement just as he wanted them to and understand more deeply the abomination of nuclear warfare that Taniguchi had been trying to convey.
In his memoir, Taniguchi shares his extraordinary life with us. Despite his having undergone dozens of surgeries, undertaken extraordinary daily measures just to stay alive, and endured endless suffering, Taniguchi’s story is inspiringly life-affirming. It is the remarkable chronicle of a man who had gone beyond personal tragedy to dedicate himself to the struggle to make sure that life will continue on this planet and that others will never need to suffer the way he has.
Taniguchi ends with a simple plea, but it is the one that motivated him for more than 70 years: ‘Let Nagasaki be the last atomic bombed site; let us be the last victims. Let the voice for the elimination of nuclear weapons spread all over the world.’ At a time when the threat of nuclear war is the greatest it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost six decades ago, this simple plea carries a poignancy that must be heard. Human beings and nuclear weapons really can no longer co-exist.
Consortiumnews.com, August 3. Peter Kuznick is professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is co-author (with Akira Kimura) of Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and American Perspectives. This article forms the Introduction to the English language translation of The Atomic Bomb on My Back: A Life Story of Survival and Activism by Taniguchi Sumiteru, to be released on August 9 by Rootstock Publishing.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion