What is the point of knowing about the past? This was a question often put to me as a teacher. Why do we need to know about it at all? Considering how different versions of the past are put forward and misused to prove some point or the other, one can sympathise with the is question. Still, one hopes that by knowing about the past at least some of its terrible tragedies would not be repeated. And among the greatest tragedies was that created by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 6 August 1945, the first ever nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan by an American plane at 8.15 am. Eighty thousand people were killed that day, and many more thousand died over the years of sickness caused by radiation. Three days later, on 9 August, another bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, killing between 60,000-80,000 people. Most of the deaths were of civilians. The bombing brought an end to World War II, with the surrender of Japan, but the USA continues to be criticised for this till today.
There are historical, as well as survivors accounts of this horrific event. Yet one of the best accounts, clearly depicting in detail the aftermath of the bomb, can be read in a book by a Japanese novelist, which focuses on Hiroshima.
Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), by Masuji Ibuse, though classified as fiction, reads like a memoir. It is an account of that day and subsequent events, and at the same time brings us vignettes of Japanese life. These are not based on Ibuse’s own experiences, but as he was born in Hiroshima prefecture, obviously what happened there affected him deeply, and he later wrote the book using the accounts of survivors. His story Kakitsubata (Crazy Iris) was published earlier, also with the theme of the atomic bomb, about an iris that changes after radiation.
Black Rain was first published in Japanese in 1966. Paul Brians, who has written on the atomic war in fiction, calls it, ‘the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written.’ The book opens with Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, more than a 100 miles east of Hiroshima, wondering how to get his niece Yasuko married. It was difficult as there were rumours that she was the victim of radiation sickness. At the time the bomb was dropped, the Shizumas, Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko, were living in Hiroshima, and Yasuko lived with them, as she was working in a factory at nearby Furuichi. She and Shigematsu took the same train to work every day. The book begins four years later .
Shigematsu was suffering from radiation sickness. He could still manage his daily life, he explains, as those who had a mild sickness could stay alive by eating nutritious food and not doing anything strenuous. Unable to work, Shigematsu and his two friends in a similar situation decided to try fish farming, and to rear carp. How was he to get Yasuko married? He thought that her would-be suitor could be convinced that she was healthy, if he was provided with her diary, which showed she was not affected by the bomb, and was not even in Hiroshima on that day. But Yasuko also records, that even if only for a minute, black rain had fallen on her.
About that day Yasuko wrote: ‘At Furue there was a great flash and boom. Black smoke rose up over the city of Hiroshima like a volcanic eruption.’
‘It must have been about 10 am. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks, the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.’ Yasuko found her skin and clothes had marks like splashes of mud all over. They were impossible to wash off. She adds in her diary, ‘As a dye, I thought, it would be an unqualified success.’
Shigematsu decided to copy his diary out too, to preserve for posterity. He wrote: 6 August. ‘On my way to work, I entered Yokogawa station as usual to board the Kabe train’. Kabe was just 14 km away.
‘At a point three metres to the left of the waiting train, I saw a ball of blindingly intense light, and simultaneously I was plunged into total unseeing darkness’. Then he describes the resulting confusion, as the black veil was pierced by screams and cries, and Shigematsu was pushed out as people struggled to escape, and bodies piled up. Shigematsu clung to a pillar, using all his strength. When he finally opened his eyes, ‘Everything within my field of vision seemed to be obscured with a light brown haze, and a white, chalky powder, was falling from the sky.’ He describes the sights, the wounded and the dead, he himself being slightly injured, the skin peeling off his left cheek. The Yukogawa shrine and all else around was destroyed. Then he describes the mushroom cloud. ‘The head of the mushroom would billow out, first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever-changing shades of red, purple, lapis lazuli or green. And all the time it went on boiling out unceasingly from within….The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce…’.
He continues to copy out his diary, recording the terrible sights and endless deaths, in between describing their quiet life in later years in the Japanese countryside. One farmers’ festival follows another, including one where prayers are said for dead insects, those that are killed while ploughing the land. And this peaceful Japanese life is contrasted with details of the terrible destruction, the dead bodies everywhere, teaming with maggots and flies, the weeds that somehow seemed to grow when everything else was a barren waste, the endless mass cremations that had to take place.
It seemed that Yasuko’s suitor was convinced that she was fine, and marriage became more likely. But though Yasuko remained apparently healthy for many years, the black rain or some other contamination had seeped into her, causing her to finally get radiation sickness, and details of this terrible illness too are provided. They could only hope for a miracle, but it seemed unlikely, she was just one more casualty of the all-round destruction.
Black Rain was made into a film by Shohei Imamura in 1989.
Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), a well-known Japanese writer, had written several books and won a number of awards, yet as far as possible he tried to remain away from the limelight.
Memoirs of the effects of the bomb include the recently published, Hiroshima: Memoirs of a Survivor by Sachi Komura Rummel, who was a young 8-year old girl at the time. Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) wrote down his experiences in a notebook, but committed suicide in 1951. His nephew Tokihiko Hara gained the copyright to his notebook and included it in his book, Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) also to be made into a movie. Sankuchi Toge (1917-1953) wrote poems on the terrible event. He died at the age of 36. There are also several eyewitness accounts which can be accessed online (for instance www.hiroshima-remembered.com), as well as a number of books, both historical and personal accounts.