This is a story from Hiroshima. It is not my story but it comes from a survivor of the atomic bomb explosion in 1945 that destroyed the city and killed over 100,000 people. I am using the words of Keiko Ogura, now 77 years old but an 8 year old girl who lived on the outskirts of Hiroshima at the time of the bomb.
When I visited Japan recently, there was a typhoon in Hiroshima, which meant we could not walk much in the Peace Park. But we could visit the Museum with its horrifying, poignant exhibits – and we were privileged to listen to Keiko telling her story for an hour.
She is a miraculously youthful, healthy-looking 77 year old who speaks excellent English. Early on in her talk she introduced us to a Japanese word – hibakusha – which means a survivor of the bomb. There were not many and they carried a burden of guilt for having survived. Guilt and fear remained – “the invisible scar I carry 70 years later”.
On the day of the bomb – 6th August 1945 at 8.15 in the morning – Keiko had been outside her house playing. The bomb (chillingly nicknamed “Little Boy”) exploded above the city and it was impossible for those who witnessed it to understand what had happened. There was noise and heat and wind and a mushroom cloud rising into the sky. The city with all its buildings was completely and immediately razed to the ground. Keiko’s house was just on the edge of the city, on a hillside. When she went into her home afterwards, hundreds of pieces of glass were imbedded in the walls.
The surviving people wandered around like zombies. Bodies were everywhere. Those still living but terminally damaged cried out like a chorus “water water water”. When Keiko gave water to one of these people, he smiled his thanks then died instantly. Later she was told that the water killed people – but to withhold water was simply to delay the inevitable death.
In a few hours what seemed like relief arrived. It started to rain and to rain hard. The rain was black and it stuck to people’s bodies. Later they discovered that this rain had contained radiation that would kill thousands more people over the following years.
“There were charcoal bodies, and so many bodies in the rivers. You tried to walk, in time you tried to make a playground, but you were standing on ashes and under the ashes were bodies. You were walking on bones.”
“Survivors worked for three days and nights to restore a streetcar. We longed to see something moving again in the city, and we cheered when it did so, we thanked the streetcar workers. Though the signs of returning life were becoming visible – rebuilding started soon, using the rubble, plants pushed through the ashes – the invisible sickness remained in the air and penetrated people’s bodies.”
Keiko was unable to speak about what had happened for 30 years. She was reluctant but was eventually persuaded to tell her story to children. “This was the start of the recovery, the end of the nightmares. Instead of blaming we converted our fears to help new generations to understand.”
So I pass on her words so we can understand a little. By that strange confusion of ‘l’ becoming ‘r’, and vice versa, when spoken by Japanese people ‘hearing’ becomes ‘healing’. In Hiroshima ‘hearing is healing’ has a deep truth.