Hiroshima and the Japanese American Hibakusha

In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, people across the globe are commemorating the lives lost and impacted by this tragedy. The anniversary also provides an opportunity to reexamine this terrible event to look for lesser known stories. How, for example, were Japanese Americans impacted by the bombing of Hiroshima?

Few know that there were an estimated 11,000 Japanese Americans living in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. Many of them had gone to Japan to attend school or visit family and were then stranded there after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jack Dairiki was born in Sacramento, California, but went to Japan with his father in 1941. He was unable to return to the U.S. because of the onset of World War II, and was attending school in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. In this clip, he describes the chaos in the city in the aftermath of the bombing:

An unknown number of Japanese Americans died in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but about 3,000 in total survived and returned to the United States after the war. These U.S. hibakusha, as survivors of the atomic bombings are known, mostly live in California and Hawai’i and have had a hard time getting recognized in either Japan or America. Similar to the Japanese Americans who were confined in concentration camps during the war, Japanese American bomb survivors remained silent about their suffering for a long time. This has made it a challenge for their experiences to be known and remembered as an important part of Japanese American history.

The thick silence began to break apart in the 1970s when U.S. bomb survivors started to seek recognition by both the American and the Japanese governments. By then, Japanese American hibakusha included not only the U.S.-born citizens, but also the Japanese people who had come to America in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these immigrants gained U.S. citizenship, while others became non-citizen residents. Thus, it was crucial for Japanese Americans to define survivorhood broadly in relationship to both countries. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. survivors campaigned for legislation that aimed to establish medical facilities and services specializing in radiation illness funded either by the federal or state governments in the United States. They also advocated successfully for a system of biannual medical checkups conducted on the U.S. West Coast by Hiroshima and Nagasaki doctors familiar with medical conditions common among survivors.

Today, U.S. hibakusha receive support from the Japanese government, including not only the biannual medical checkups but also a range of monetary allowances. They do not receive any recognition from their own government, in contrast to the former detainees of incarceration camps who received a formal apology and reparation payments from the U.S. government by the early 1990s. This absence of recognition is in sharp contrast, too, to the compensation given to other U.S. citizens victimized by radiation. With the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, for example, U.S. veterans who had been at nuclear test sites, as well as Native Americans irradiated in uranium mines, became eligible for disability compensation. In this way and others, U.S. hibakusha’s history urges us to consider the legacy of the Good War as it relates to Japanese American history from the perspective of still under-recognized, minority citizens within a minority group.

The layers of identity, affinity, and experience revealed by these stories contradict the usual view of bomb survivors as Japanese citizens whose national identity explains their experiences. Indeed, because the U.S. hibakusha’s stories go against the grain of these nation-specific understandings of the bomb, their experiences call attention to the history of migration that long preceded the war, and they highlight the nationally un-specific, thus indiscriminate, nature of nuclear attacks. U.S. hibakusha tell us how a simplistic understanding of Americans-as-victors and Japanese-as-victims does not hold. What rings true instead is that the bomb left an indelible mark on both Japanese and American histories.

*The information in this blog post was excerpted from the Densho Encyclopedia article, Japanese American Hibakusha by Naoko Wake. Read the full article here.

Additional Reading

Hein, Laura, and Mark Selden, eds. Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.
Sodei, Rinjiro. Were We the Enemy?: American Survivors of Hiroshima. Ed. John Junkerman. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.
Oral histories of U.S. survivors. Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Oral histories of North and South American survivors. Robert Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.
Committee of A-bomb Survivors in United States of America papers, 1971–75. California State Archives, Sacramento, CA

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