Hibakushas – the Survivors

Hibakusha is the term widely used in Japan referring to victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese word translates literally as “explosion-affected people”.

The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who were within a few kilometres of the hypocentres of the bombs; who were within 2 km of the hypocentres within two weeks of the bombings; who were exposed to radiation from fallout; and babies carried by pregnant women in any of these categories.

As of March 31, 2007, there were 251,834 living hibakusha certified by the Japanese government, with an average age of 74.6. Almost all live in Japan, but several thousand bomb-survivors live in Korea and elsewhere. Many of them are ill, all are old, but still many of them travel around the world to tell about their experience and help young people understand the horrors of nuclear weapons. At the website Voice of Hibakusha you will find testimonies from the terrible days after 6 and 9 August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

PaperCranesMany of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have had to live with serious disorders, pain and problems. But many of them have also had a hard time finding their role in society. The survivors were seen as unwilling and incapable of working, due to the so-called A-bomb disease. Most of the survivors have also been struggling with the difficult question: Why me? Why was I the victim of this? What could life have looked like if I were not in Hiroshima or Nagasaki that very day?

Out of fear from being further excluded from society, many of the survivors and their families have beenr eluctant to let themselves being studied. Many are also afraid to expose their difficult experiences and feelings to a stranger, for fear of being misunderstood or exposed. American psychologist and  researcher Robert Jay Lifton conducted early a major study of the psychological health of the survivors.

In his study, Lifton shows that manny survivors have ha a problem finding t heir identity and a balance in life after their close encounter with death. Many of them also suffer from guilt of surviving while so many friends and family members died. All the terrible sights and experiences have for many of them led to a constriction and shielding of thoughts and memories of the disaster. Lifton also concluded that the hibakusha are excluded from society because they are assosciated with impurity, from their close contact with so much death and misery. A corresponding impurity was also experienced by the contaminated individuals after the Gôiania accident.

In recent years, the psychological health of the hibakushas has been discussed in terms of post traumatic stress syndrome PTSD. Extreme psychological experiences of trauma are a certain kind of stress. Following a large crisis or catastrope, a number of different psychological or psychosomatic illnesses can occur. States of anxiety and depression are common, even though the nosology and classifications are doubtful, as are nightmares, flashbacks and persistent painful recollections of the events experienced.

Photo 2012-08-22 14 26 23The hibakusha tell their stories about death and burned people in layers on the ground; of the stench after a few days when wounds started rotting in the sun and worms proliferated in the dead bodies; of skin falling off their friends and relatives when trying to help them. These are dreadful descriptions by eyewitnesses.

It is readily understandable that such experience needs to be filtered and constricted in order for the survivors to cope with their lives. 11 years after the bombings the frequency of neurosis like symptoms among the survivors were estimated to 5% for men and 9% for women. A more recent and sophisticated study of 226 hibakushas 50 years after the numbing showed a 40% prevalence of mental disturbances and more than 20% with neuroses.

Many of the hibakushas seem to focus more on the bomb than their life after the war, and the duration of the severity of the experiences shows some similarities to the survivors of the Holocaust.

Visit Hibakusha Stories for more information.


Last update: February 5, 2015