August 6, 2010 / 4:51 AM / 10 years ago

Witness - My Japanese grandparents' silence over the A-bomb

Yoko Kubota is a Reuters correspondent based in Tokyo, who covers political and general news in Japan. Aged 28, she grew up in Japan and the United States and joined Reuters in 2007. In the following story, she reflects on how difficult it was for her grandparents to speak about their experiences as Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors.

Tokyo based Reuters correspondent Yoko Kubota, 28, in this undated photo, writes on how difficult it was for her grandparents to speak about their experiences as Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. REUTERS/Staff

By Yoko Kubota

HIROSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - I was 22 years old when my grandmother first told me about what she saw in Hiroshima as a survivor of the atomic bomb that levelled this city 65 years ago, and how it completely changed my grandparent’s lives.

As a child growing up near Tokyo, I had visited them often around this time of the year, when the city hosts various events to commemorate the hundreds of thousands that died.

But they never talked about what happened on that day, 65 years ago, and it would be years before I would ask them.

Some survivors of the bomb chose to speak to their families about it, so that their painful legacy could live on.

But for my grandparents, like many other Japanese who lost families and homes to the bomb, the experience was just too cruel to recall. Another relative also raised concerns about discrimination against bomb survivors, their children and grandchildren, in getting jobs or getting married.

“When one is really, truly sad, it’s difficult to go out there and speak about these things,” my 82-year-old grandmother told me this week.

It was only after my grandfather, who had lost his parents and two sisters on August 6, 1945, died that I found out what he, as well as my grandmother, had seen.


I was a college student in the United States when I started to wonder what really happened to my grandparents in Hiroshima. One summer, I asked my relatives and found out that I am a third-generation “hibakusha,” or atomic bomb survivor.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, my grandmother, aged 17, was working in a brick warehouse for a branch of the military that made clothes, when the bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” fell.

The warehouse was about 3 km (2 miles) from the epicentre of the blast, and she was blown down the stairs by a strong wind.

The brick walls protected her from the explosion’s heat, believed to have reached as high as 4,000 degrees Celsius (7,200 Fahrenheit), and she was only slightly hurt.

But when she went outside, she witnessed scenes she still cannot forget to this day.

“I held a baby that someone had handed to me. The baby’s back was dark gray from burns and there were many bubbles. When I touched the skin, it peeled off smoothly. The baby must have already been dead,” she said.

“I cannot forget that feeling. It’s impossible to express it in words.”

Although her house was gone, she was re-united with her family several days later. After a while, she developed boils on her body, but a nurse treated her and she soon recovered.

My grandfather, a 27-year-old officer who was teaching plane maintenance at a military school near Tokyo, rushed back to Hiroshima a week after August 6, hearing that a “special type of bomb” had been dropped on his hometown.

There, he found the burnt remains of his parents and two sisters, who were at home that day, 400 metres (1,300 ft) from the epicentre, and exposed himself to radiation.

His father’s printing company, in the same area, was destroyed and all its employees dead. Several months later, he also lost his younger brother, who had returned from Southeast Asia, to malaria.

“He (my grandfather) would talk a little, then shut his mouth. He must have not wanted to speak. Everything in his life changed with the bomb,” my grandmother said.

My grandfather may have felt that he lost everything he had, but he gradually rebuilt his life. He re-started his father’s printing company in 1946 and later married my grandmother, starting a family.

To me, my grandfather was a humorous man with a passion for baseball. He never talked about the bomb to me, or even to my mother, and died about 10 years ago in a traffic accident.

My family has been fortunate not to see health problems that affected many other hibakusha.

Yet when I asked my relatives about that day, I saw expressions of agony that I had never seen on their faces before.

Hearing all these stories, I was initially shocked to find I was in some way linked to this historic event.

An issue that had always inspired dread in me took on a human face — my family’s face.

But it also inspired a new respect and admiration for my grandparents, and their generation, for moving on with their lives and rebuilding Hiroshima. They refused, like millions of others around the world who have been struck by disaster, to be stuck in the past.

My grandparents have came and visited me in the United States, where I lived for over a decade and which I came to think of as my second home, and my grandmother said she holds no hatred against the country that destroyed her city.

Even after hearing her story, I, too, harbour no anger.

“We were in a war, so it could not be helped that people hated them (the United States) then,” she said.

“But now, the most important thing is that such a thing never happens again.”

The hibakusha are ageing, and I often wonder how many stories go untold or become forgotten. Now I am back in this city as a reporter, doing what I can do by sharing my grandparents’ story and the spirit of Hiroshima.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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