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Looking at the title of Susan Southard's Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, many readers are likely to ask, "Hasn't this story been told many times before?"
The answer, surprisingly, is no. Though the first atomic bomb attack on Japan and its aftermath have been well documented, the story of the second target city has, until now, remained in Hiroshima's literary shadow.
So what better time to remedy that deficiency than next week's 70th anniversary of the twin attacks? Southard's book, the result of more than a decade of detailed research, follows the lives of five teenage hibakusha (bomb-affected people) from the hours immediately before the explosion of "Fat Man" above Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, to the present.
In the first chapter, readers meet the central characters. Streetcar driver Wada Koichi survived because of a twist of fate. A derailment elsewhere in the system diverted him from his normal route which would have taken him to the heart of the devastation.
Nagano Etsuko spent most of her lifetime blaming herself for persuading her parents to bring her younger siblings home from their grandparents' home outside the city where had been evacuated for safety. Her brother died almost immediately after the attack; her sister weeks later when radiation sickness set in. She finally forgave herself after exchanging apologies with her mother in 1995.
"Wild child" but fashion-conscious Do-oh Mineko left the safety of her home five miles inland to work in a Mitsubishi Arms Factory plant. She was wearing her hated wartime clothing when the blast hit a mile away.
Night-shift postal worker Taniguchi Sumiteru awoke from a nap on a tatami (mat) on the post-office floor. Instead of having time off until noon, he covered a superior's route. At 11:02 a.m., he was riding his red bicycle in the Northwest of the city when the bomb exploded about 1.5 miles to his south.
Of the five, Yoshida Katsuji was the youngest and closest to the blast, only a half-mile from ground zero. He was lowering a bucket into into a roadside well near the Urakami River when he looked upward and saw something falling from the sky. Southard uses his to words bring the chapter to an ominous close: "'The parachutes floated down saatto,' he said. Quietly, with no sound."
Then with the turn of a page, Southard plunges her readers--and the protagonists--into horror. In gruesome detail, she describes the fireball and its aftermath: Total destruction of neighborhoods, factories, places of worship, and human bodies; survivors with burned flesh and seeping wounds that will not heal for years; radiation-induced illnesses that appear unnanounced weeks, months, or even years later; revulsion in the faces of others.
The survivors' anger is palpable, directed only not toward the Americans who dropped the bombs but also toward their own militaristic leaders who had "fed propaganda to the Japanese people about their country's supremacy and its innate destiny ...."
That destiny turned into defeat, occupation, and particular humiliation to the hibakusha. The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission offered medical care but treated them as experimental subjects. Southard notes that "Autopsy... tissues, slides, and body parts... were extracted, examined, and quickly dispatched to the United States," where they were treated as classified information. As a result, ABCC's own physicians were unable to get medical reports that were essential for proper treatment of their patients.
Late in life, many hibakusha took on a new identity. They became "karatibe--storytellers in the centuries--long Japanese tradition by which selected individuals pass on historical information to their fellow citizens and future generations."
They had a mission and a message: No one should ever again become a hibakusha. Do-oh died of cancer in 2007 but left behind a collection of essays entitled Ikasarete ikite (Allowed to live, I live).
In 2010, a rapidly speading cancer claimed Yoshida as well. Before his final illness, he had been planning to speak at that year's United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Hayashida Mitsuhiro, an eighteen-year-old activist and grandson of a hibakusha, took up Yoshida's mantle. He now shares Yoshida's story with American audiences, closing every speech with Yoshida's signature words: "The basis of peace is for people to understand the pain of others."
Through this book, Southard has also become a karatibe, enabling her readers to understand the hibakusha's pain and commitment that no one should ever again experience what they did. It is not easy reading, but it is essential in today's world.
Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including the newly released eight-book series Exploring the Subatomic World.