75 years after the atomic bomb changed her life, Hiroshima survivor speaks out on trauma and the need to remember
On August 6th, 1945, nine-year old Mihoko was swinging in her elementary school playground in Hiroshima when the world’s first atomic bomb dropped and thrust her under rubble. In the teaching of history, the bomb is often lauded as a triumph of USA’s science and an end to what was a painful war period. For a girl just struck by it and many like her, it comes unwarranted and at the expense of a happy family.
On a summer afternoon, Mihoko sat on a call with her son and myself, attempting to recall anything she saw on that walk home. Dealing with an unimaginable amount of shock, the only thing on her mind seemed to be the eagerness to return to her family.
“In less than a second, I just saw this bright white flash, what looked a million times stronger than the flash on a camera, and the next moment I woke up and everything had changed,” she told me. “My house was only a few miles away, so I started walking, but I don’t remember seeing anyone on my way there.”
Mihoko endured physical effects of the radiation on her entire backside, though she would not know it until days later.
“I wore a winter jacket that we found in the rubble, and a few days later when I took it off it was stuck on my scars. That’s how I found out.”
The only memory she had upon arriving home was wanting to sleep. Throughout the week, her family gradually returned: her older sister, her brothers, her father’s childhood nanny, her eldest sister who worked in the city, and her mother.
But some did not make it. Her father was found crushed under the impact of his collapsed workplace. Another one of her sisters was never found or retrieved, her disappearance being something she sometimes still fails to accept. And one of her brothers later passed after suffering severe burns, exacerbated by the summer heat and the thirst he couldn’t quench due to all the filtration being destroyed and the rain being filled with ash.
Mihoko described the attack beginning the first chapter of her life, one often filled with pessimism and dissociation. Her vivid memories mostly recalled strong sensory images associated with burns.
In one instance she talked about seeing a burned girl whose front side was indiscernible from her back; in another she brought up seeing two kids desperately trying to soothe their burns in the nearby river, which she later found out to be piled with bodies. In dealing with her own burns, she described purple scars on her arm, which she’d wrap with bandages that would impede her ability to move it for many years.
But memories of school and how her family found food were scarce.
“Sometimes we got rice from soldiers, and once we found a collapsed military camp with food supplies in it,” she recalled. “But most of the time we were just trying to survive, so I didn’t have time to remember.”
These voids in memory about readjusting to normal life seem to be in some parts due to shock and pessimism, in others due to keeping these parts of her life secret until our conversation. Yet these components contributed to a painfully nostalgic view of her hometown of Hiroshima.
For 10–15 years, they had been living between a hut her brother built and a storage unit her dad owned that was intact after the blast. Eventually, it came time to adapt to more habitable circumstances, and they moved to her mother’s hometown of Osaka.
For many of us detached from the effects of war, leaving the place where our trauma first occurred sounds like the first step in moving forward, but that wasn’t the case for Mihoko.
“I didn’t like it. Osaka and Hiroshima both have strong, distinct accents, so immediately I was different,” she told me. “I didn’t fit in.”
She described experiencing bouts of culture shock, including interacting with her sister’s wealthy family friend.
“I hated it, because they had everything and we had nothing. But we had no place else to go.”
So, despite its painful memories, Hiroshima continued to hold a special meaning to her. After a few years in Osaka, her friend who worked in a US military base in Hiroshima convinced her to stay in the dorms they offered. She ended up working in a department store on the base, where she met her American husband, and her second chapter in life began.
“Some people at the time who knew me were opposed, saying I was with the enemy,” she remarked. “But my entire family accepted him, and his family did the same when I first visited the United States.”
“My mother and his family didn’t speak each other’s languages, but they got along well. I remember when I had my first son, my mother spent hours with him with my in-laws. I don’t know how they communicated, but they obviously loved one another.”
Many times throughout our conversation, I was curious to know of Mihoko’s trauma in relation to the United States, and whether she resented the country at all during her life. As many times as I posed the question in various ways, I got the same answer, no. But her fear of war and nuclear arms manufacturing still remains.
“Even if nuclear arms aren’t being used against anyone, the factories still hurt people not involved in war. Accidents that have occurred have taken lives due to radiation.”
Still, this statement eliminates any notion that Mihoko carries hatred for any group of people, a phenomenon which forced me to confront my own biases about war and the way I have been taught about it through an elite narrative of history.
People’s understanding of war often is dehumanized and weighed against the identity of entire nations, leading them to forget about people’s basic needs of survival. A statistic is projected — so-and-so thousand or million displaced or killed — to the point of reducing each individual victim’s trauma to numbers.
That statistic for Hiroshima is the death toll estimated around 150,000. How those in the West, including me, might have understood that death toll is just a matter of whether or not 150,000 lives justifies the political objectives of the United States at the time, rather than the individual stories of those 150,000 and the families that suffered from their deaths.
But here, 75 years after the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mihoko, her son and I sit on a call as she slowly deconditions those preconceived notions in me. Much of our conversation is spent discussing the countless others in powerless situations around the world, a conversation with the possibility of leading to more hopelessness, or one which could add a depth of human connection to the dialogue surrounding war. Fortunately, this one leads to the latter.
Mihoko Vukmirovich is 84 now and lives in California. She has two sons, her husband now passed. She tells me she seldom wonders what her life might be like had Hiroshima not been struck that day, or struck at all. A part of processing the event 75 years later is acknowledging its permanence and the fact that she would not have her current, happy life had it not occurred, but also accepting that it was a devastating result of the worst parts of humanity.
As commemorations of the event fade in Japan, she hopes her story can be a reminder of why it’s important to remember. When people are stripped of even their basic right to survive, the desire to enforce differences between nations and political objectives becomes the least of the world’s worries. Rather, those who live past the trauma hope to prevent it from happening to anyone again.