Editor’s note: August 14, 1945, is the date of the announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies, the effective end of World War II.
My father was a soldier in George S. Patton’s army, European theater, World War II. Dad was a corporal, military police, born hard-edged and by disposition stubborn.
My father-in-law was also a soldier, an equally tough combatant, deployed to Asia by the Heavenly Sovereign Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Father-in-law was polite and introspective, at least in the years I knew him. During the war he was a foot soldier, bivouacked in China, where most of the imperial army reposed. He never revealed much about his wartime years, although I do recall him speaking once about the consistency and color of the dirt he slept on, and the fear that hung above, like a fog that wouldn’t scatter.
My father was a Jew of East European stock, whose forbears worshipped God, spoke Yiddish, and endured as best they could the hard shtetl life.
My father-in-law was samurai, with genuine warrior roots. Discipline and industriousness ran in his blood. He was not a religious man unless you consider the golf ball to be a postwar deity. But he valued tradition, was faithful to his family, and revered Japan, prewar and post.
My father also was a reverent man, a patriot who honored his country. But he also honored the diaspora of European Jewry whose ruin he saw sketched, in harrowing relief, when he and his U.S. Army comrades freed Buchenwald.
Emancipating that place and feeding its survivors was a defining event in my father’s life. The experience left a stomach-churning taste that lingered, a taste that affected the way he viewed the world. It elevated my father’s sense of Jewishness, and it fed a preexisting arrogance that, in the postwar years, turned him into something of a xenophobe. He preferred the insular world of people who looked and thought like him; indeed, he raised his children in a suburban Jewish ghetto where diversity was non-existent, where intolerance of non-Jewishness flourished, where Israel stood, like Mount Sinai, above all else, with the possible exception of the American flag.
“I dislike foreigners,” my father told me one day, out of the blue, when I was 17. It was a disturbing and profoundly disappointing thing to hear. It sent me reeling in the opposite direction, toward a life of foreign languages and cultures, and into the arms of my wife, who is from Japan, from the other side of my father’s war.
My father’s wartime name was Rudy. My father-in-law was Kennichi. They were born months apart, in 1925, on different halves of the planet. Each man died, eight decades later, without having met the other. I made sure of that. But for me, the two were interlinked by my marriage, to be sure, but even more so by other more powerful things: the horoscopic tenor of contemporary births; the subsequent decades that shaped their lives and mind-sets; and within those confines and above all else, the war in which they served. And because of these connections, I found meaning in their deaths and inspiration in the manner each was laid to rest.
My father was interred in a Jewish cemetery named Shalom Memorial Park. A military honor guard showed up, ramrod in posture and dressed in finery. A young army corpsman played taps. Another saluted my mother. They retrieved the American flag that draped my father’s coffin and folded it gently—the better to exalt the spirit of the man who had died—and meticulously, the better to acknowledge the disciplined veteran and his military service.
We took the flag home and placed it near my father’s safe, in which, upon inspection, I discovered an old envelope filled with a dozen photographs he had taken in Buchenwald. The photos depicted the usual Holocaust fare, horrific piles of corpses and bones, skeleton survivors with shattered faces. My father had kept the photos secret, under lock and key, so important were their memories and meaning to him. And now, to me.
My father-in-law was cremated, as Buddhism requires; his family and I surrounded his coffin as it slid into the crematory oven. We were there afterward as well, when Kennichi-san’s remains, once cooled, were rolled out, all ashes and shards of bone, and presented before us, the better to honor his soul. And as Japanese tradition commands, the immediate family—the widow, the daughters and son—used giant chopsticks to pick up skeletal bits and pieces, depositing them into a cremation urn that, as it happened, was the clone of an oversized golf ball specially tailored for the occasion.
The ceremony is called kotsuage, and the idea, explained to me afterward, is noble: Loved ones watch over the deceased until the very, very end, when the soul of the fallen enters the enlightened eternal life. I wasn’t aware of the rationale as the event transpired, and except for the golf ball, all I could think of was Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
Those thoughts surprised and disturbed me. I knew, of course, where they came from because I was my father’s son and had been raised as a Jew in a place called Skokie, Illinois, where synagogues and temples outnumbered churches, and where thousands of Holocaust survivors lived among us interspersed.
I grew up next door to a Mrs. Herskovitz, who had experienced Auschwitz. My first glimpse at the numbers tattooed on her left forearm is a childhood snapshot memory.
My reaction to Kennichi’s cremation surprised and disturbed me mostly because it exposed ignorance of things Japanese, despite my marriage and multiple visits to Japan, and also because I had conjured up, in the presence of Kennichi-san’s remains, a memory of evil that falsely equated a righteous and praiseworthy Buddhist tradition with Hitler’s Final Solution, a most profoundly malevolent proceeding.
Yet there was, in this unseemly juxtaposition, something else at play: a reminder of the simple truth that vision is shaped by experience, and that Judaism tints the lens through which I view Japan.
In the summer of 2007, while in Tokyo on a journalism fellowship, I came across a photograph during an internet search for story ideas. The photo was taken days after the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It showed a young woman who had survived the blast. Her face was hidden, but her shoulders and back were exposed. Burnt there into her skin, by the force of the explosion, was the pattern of the kimono she was wearing when the A-bomb went off.
The photo was subtle, lyrical, and horrifying. A woman, in a flash, was branded forever with the crosshatch pattern of a summertime kimono, the consequence of gamma rays and simple science: dark colors absorb heat, but light colors reflect. Black stripes of kimono fabric took in thermal radiation and penetrated her flesh. White patches of kimono cloth reflected the heat, sparing the skin. What remained on the woman was a gruesome blueprint of the garment Japan holds most dear.
For me, the markings on her flesh recalled the concentration camp tattoos of Auschwitz and summoned up the memory of my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Herskovitz, who, like the woman in the photo, bore the uncommon stain of war on her skin. It seemed to me that the photo of this unidentified woman from Hiroshima easily could rest beside snapshots of Jewish Holocaust victims in the gallery of 20th-century suffering.
I knew Mrs. Herskovitz. I knew nothing about the woman in the Hiroshima photo. What was her name? What was her story? How long did she live after the war?
Did her life or death add value to my understanding of the Holocaust, or of Japan; or was my connection of this woman with Mrs. Herskovitz entirely subjective and without broader merit?
I traveled to Hiroshima in search of answers. First stop—the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It is Japan’s Yad Vashem, a repository of memories, artifacts, pain, and suffering that illustrates, with archeological precision, the human fallout of an atomic attack.
A copy of the photograph was displayed there. The picture was in color. “Imprinted kimono pattern,” a caption read. “The heat rays burned the dark parts of the kimono pattern into her skin.” The photographer was identified as a man named Gonichi Kimura. He was said to have taken the picture at the “Ujina Branch of the Hiroshima First Army Hospital.” Approximate date of the photo: Aug. 15, 1945.
It was a beginning, scraps of information that suggested pathways for further research. But the prize—details about the woman—was not there. She was not identified. The photo, in fact, appeared staged to maintain her anonymity: she was seated, looking away from the camera, precluding facial recognition, presumably because the snapshot was painfully intimate: The flowery blue dress she wore on the day of the photo shoot was immodestly pulled down to the waist on her right side, fully exposing a scarred torso.
Later that day, I visited the peace museum’s archive. There, hidden inside a weather-beaten volume of wartime photographs, I found the woman’s name.
A curator gently placed the book on a table in front of me. She handled it with white gloves. “It’s very valuable,” she said. The book was part of a medical report that a Japanese investigative team had prepared after the Hiroshima bombing. Its pages were yellowed and torn with age, conveying a fragility appropriate to the subject matter.
A photo of the kimono-scarred woman was pasted onto an unnumbered page in the middle of the volume. The curator told me it was one of a handful of original prints. There was a second photo on the same page, equally stark, if not more so. It showed a single, charred, tattered scrap of cloth, taken from the kimono the woman had worn when the atomic bomb exploded.
Beneath the first photo, in handwritten text, was the woman’s name, as well as a statement that the burns on her body were “in accordance with the black stripes of her clothing.” Above the second photo, the one with the frayed piece of kimono cloth: a simple notation that the photo exhibited “the relationship between clothing and burns.”
The curator told me that this book was the only known source linking the woman’s first and last names to the photo. At the curator’s insistence, I agreed to protect the woman’s privacy—posthumously if she were dead, contemporaneously if she were still alive—by using her first initial only. The woman’s name was “S. Ushio.”
The search for S. Ushio’s story required multiple visits to Hiroshima over the course of several years. Even then, only snippets of Ushio-san’s life seemed clear and subject to confirmation.
On July 10, 1977, Hiroshima’s main newspaper, the Chugoku Shimbun, published a list of yukuefumeisha—people who had gone missing after the atomic bombing. The list was based on information provided post-1945 by surviving family members who were looking for their loved ones. S. Ushio was on the list. She was reported to have been 22 years old on the day of the bombing, and she lived in the Kakomachi section of Hiroshima, a downtown area some 1.3 kilometers (eight-tenths of a mile) south of ground zero, also known as the hypocenter. There was no information regarding her whereabouts at the time of the blast.
Two weeks earlier, on June 29, 1977, the Chugoku Shimbun had printed another list, of muenbotoke—bomb victims who had been identified but whose remains were never collected by family members. S. Ushio was not on this list.
Taken together, the two lists showed that somebody in S. Ushio’s family had survived the bombing and had notified authorities that the woman was missing. There was no confirmation, however, that she was dead or alive.
There are two large repositories of information in Hiroshima regarding A-bomb casualties: the National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and Hiroshima City Hall. These buildings store all relevant, extant written records. I visited both places and asked staff researchers to look for any mention of an S. Ushio. A young victim—“Sakuko Ushio–age 7”—came up in both databases. There were no references to S. Ushio, however, and, therefore, still no proof of her whereabouts, or whether she had died.
The Chugoku Shimbun article from 1977 was the only available public acknowledgment of S. Ushio that I could find. Additional information about her life, however, could reasonably be inferred from other sources.
I showed the Ushio photos to Professor Yuko Tanaka, a Japanese culture and kimono expert at Tokyo’s Hosei University. Tanaka said the crosshatched garment that left its imprint on S. Ushio’s back was a yukata, a commonly worn summertime kimono made of cotton. “It was very casual and inexpensive, the daily style of normal people during WWII,” Tanaka said. At age 22, Ushio-san would probably have been married. “I believe this lady was most likely a normal housewife.”
The curator at the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum provided information about Gonichi Kimura, the man who took S. Ushio’s picture. Kimura worked as a staff photographer for the Japanese Army’s Ship Training Division, which was based in Hiroshima (the city was an important port in southern Japan). The Ujina military hospital, where the photo was taken, was situated some two-and-a-half miles from the A-bomb hypocenter. It was equally far from Kakomachi, the area where S. Ushio lived.
The Ushio photo was one of dozens Kimura took in the days and months after the atomic bombing. Kimura wrote a brief accounting of his activities after the U.S. attack, which the curator made available to me. In it, Kimura made no mention of a kimono-scarred woman. He did, however, take photographs in Kakomachi. The neighborhood was flattened. “There were no buildings, only a solitary, strangely tall chimney standing in the midst of the burned-out area,” Kimura wrote. “It was terribly eerie.”
Ushio was probably elsewhere when the A-bomb fell. Had she been in Kakomachi, she most certainly would have died.
But she remained alive, at least for the weeks immediately after the bombing. The caption on the Ushio photo displayed in the Peace Museum said Kimura shot the picture approximately Aug. 15, 1945, 9 days after the bombing. Masami Nishimoto, a Chugoku Shimbun reporter who has written about Kimura’s photographs, told me that was wrong.
Nishimoto explained that the photo was taken with color film, which was not available in Japan at the time. It was, however, used in the United States. Nishimoto said that Kimura must have gotten the film from an American research group that had arrived in Hiroshima, and visited Ujina hospital, in September 1945. That is when Kimura would have snapped his photo, or perhaps even later. In either case, S. Ushio lived for at least a month after the Hiroshima attack.
But how long could she have stayed alive? For me, that was the most intriguing question. She had made it through the bombing and, despite her injuries, had somehow found her way to the Ujina military hospital. That alone suggested a certain tenacity. Could she have hung on for months or even years longer? Or did her injuries and exposure to radiation cut short her life?
In Japanese, the word genbaku means “atomic bomb.” It is as central to describing Japan’s postwar experience as the word Holocaust is to the Jews, or Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and Stalingrad to the lexicon of WWII.
The Genbaku Retirement Home is nestled in the hills outside Hiroshima, a 25-minute train ride and a 10-minute taxi from the city’s central rail station. The home is modern, the area quiet. There is no sign of the urban bustle that now thrives in contemporary Hiroshima, whose population now exceeds 1 million. The Genbaku Retirement Home enjoys tranquility.
In 1945, at least 350,000 people lived in Hiroshima. When I visited the retirement facility, some 300 A-bomb survivors—collectively known as hibakusha—resided there. Dr. Nanao Kamada was their chief medical officer.
Dr. Kamada was a hematologist and radiation biologist. Since 1962, he had specialized in treating hibakusha who suffered from leukemia and cancer. He was especially interested in helping people who were within a 500-meter radius of ground zero and, despite the odds, had managed to survive.
Nobody knows exactly how many people died in the immediate firestorm of the Hiroshima A-bomb. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint U.S.-Japanese scientific group that monitors the health of hibakusha, estimates that between 90,000 and 160,000 people perished Aug. 6, 1945, or within the subsequent two to four months.
Dr. Kamada said that in 2010, about 240,000 people who had experienced the Hiroshima attack were still alive. Their average age was 76. I showed Dr. Kamada S. Ushio’s photograph and told him Ushio-san was 22 years old on the day it was taken. “As a medical doctor specializing in treating survivors, can you diagnose how seriously this woman was injured and give me your opinion on how long she was likely to have lived?” I asked.
Dr. Kamada said the burns on S. Ushio’s body were not uniformly serious. Her neck and elbow were “very severely injured.” Her arm and upper back were not.
“So your question is how long she could have survived?” he asked.
He paused. “If she had been properly treated, she can still be alive for more than 20 years. Do you know the distance she was from the hypocenter?”
“No,” I said. “But she was in Hiroshima city. This picture was taken at the Ujina military hospital.”
“So she was exposed nearer to the hypocenter, and then she moved to Ujina hospital.”
“Yes. I’m not sure where she was exactly when the bomb went off. But she lived somewhere in the city.”
“The survival time depends on the dose of exposure,” Dr. Kamada explained. “From this picture, I would speculate she was exposed around 2 kilometers from the hypocenter. So the radiation doses were not so hot, probably 5 to 10 rads. In those cases, someone can live 10 or 20 years. So unless she had a malignant tumor, she can live.”
“Unless she had a malignant tumor, she could have survived?”
“Survived until when?” I asked. “Until today?
“So it is possible that this woman could be alive today?”
“Maybe this is not a fair question, but could you give what the odds are that she could still be alive?”
Dr. Kamada paused again to think.
“80 percent,” he said.
“80 percent she could still be alive?”
“Yes. You said she was 22 years old?”
“She would be about 85 years old now.”
I thanked Dr. Kamada for his time and asked if I could take his photograph. He agreed.
A large bouquet of flowers sat on his desk. Dr. Kamada insisted that I include the flowers in the photo. “I love flowers,” he told me.
We shook hands, and I returned to Hiroshima.
Japanese names that sound alike can be spelled in different ways. The variations depend on the choice of kanji, the Chinese characters that make up the bulk of Japan’s writing system. Two completely different kanji characters can have identical pronunciations. That means the surname “Ushio” can be spelled in dissimilar ways.
The Hiroshima telephone directly listed nearly 150 Ushios with kanji that matched the spelling of S. Ushio’s surname, as recorded in the old book of photos I saw in the peace-museum archive. I called them all—with an interpreter’s assistance—hoping to find S. Ushio herself, or a relative who might have known her.
A woman named Motoko answered one of the calls. She said she knew an S. Ushio who was 84 years old, only one year shy of Dr. Kamada’s estimation. This S. Ushio was the sister of Motoko’s husband. She married at some point and went by the name of S. Kiyokawa.
Motoko said S. Kiyokawa was a Hiroshima hibakusha.
I explained that I was looking for the woman in the kimono burn photo, and asked if I could telephone S. Kiyokawa to inquire whether she had been treated at the Unija military hospital in August or September 1945, and if so, whether she recalled posing for a photographer named Kimura.
“I don’t know if it is a good idea to give you the number,” Motoko said. “Even if you call, she is asleep most mornings and nights, so she probably wouldn’t pick up the phone. She’s old now and cannot hear well.”
Motoko agreed to contact her sister-in-law on my behalf.
Meanwhile, I contacted a researcher at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall, and asked whether they had any information about a survivor named S. Kiyokawa. They did not.
Motoko called back later that day. She had spoken with S. Kiyokawa.
“She told me politely but firmly that she will not speak with you. She said she is very old and will not be calling you back. And she said, ‘It cannot be me in that picture.’ ”
Just as well, because I had forgotten to ask whether S. Kiyokawa spelled her maiden name with the same kanji used in my S. Ushio’s surname. That oversight alone would have precluded my ability to confirm whether the two hibakusha might have been one and the same.
All of the other Ushios I spoke with said they had never heard of an Ushio survivor whose first name was S. Based on the tone of some of those conversations, information would not have been forthcoming even if knowledge existed.
I do not know what became of S. Ushio. Inconspicuousness is a garment that history seems to have imposed on her, whether she wanted to wear it or not.
Masami Nishimoto, the Chugoku Shimbun expert on genbaku photography, has looked into the Ushio photo. He told me with certainty—based on records he claims to have seen—that S. Ushio died at age 22, and that her body was probably transferred from Hiroshima to Ninoshima, a nearby island in the Seto Inland Sea that has been called the place of the sleeping dead. Ninoshima served as a quarantine station and emergency field hospital after the bombing. Tens of thousands of casualties were moved there, and many thousands died, their identities lost in the mayhem of emergency cremations and burials.
Over the postwar years, remains of the Ninoshima dead were moved back to Hiroshima. Unidentified ashes, along with identified but unclaimed remains, were stored in the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, an underground repository of lost souls that is situated near the Peace Memorial Museum. Nishimoto surmises that S. Ushio’s remains—identified or not—rest inside the Mound.
Shinji Uemoto, a Hiroshima City Hall official responsible for the Memorial Mound, told me he had no record of S. Ushio’s remains ever having been placed there.
Nishimoto said it would not have been unusual, given the confusion of the times, for S. Ushio’s name—which authorities had recorded when her photograph was taken—to have disappeared entirely from government registers. If that is what happened, and if S. Ushio’s ashes are in the Mound, they probably sit unlabeled, resting with the many thousands of other unidentified remains that reside there.
There has never been a full accounting of everyone who died in Hiroshima. The A-bomb destroyed the public records of private lives many thousands of times over. The details of S. Ushio’s life vanished in that whirlwind.
But S. Ushio’s photograph is alive. It is eloquent and it is powerful. And it has the ability to rouse memories and to stir emotions, particularly among those Japanese of S. Ushio’s generation who experienced the war themselves.
I met Miyoko Watanabe one November morning outside a basement conference room in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I had just visited the museum’s archive, where I found the old book, yellowed with time, which provided the name and age of S. Ushio.
Watanabe-san, a Hiroshima hibakusha, was in her late 70s. She had just lectured some high school students about the day the bomb went off.
“It is not easy for me to talk about my experience,” she said. “For me, it is like airing my dirty linen in public.” She speaks to children in order to honor the victims and to promote peace, she said. She has told her story more than 1,000 times.
Miyoko Watanabe was a teenager in 1945. She had been mobilized as a laborer in the Japan Steel works, which made defense-related supplies for the Japanese navy. Aug. 6 was a no-electricity day at the plant, so its workers had time off. Watanabe-san was in her home, about 2.5 kilometers south of ground zero, when the bomb exploded. Her house collapsed, exposing bamboo frames. She was knocked unconscious. Her injuries were not life-threatening, although she suffered severe diarrhea. Her father, who was closer to the hypocenter, was horribly burned.
“On the day of Japan’s surrender,” Watanabe-san recalled, “he mumbled, ‘Japan lost the war.’ He died undramatically the next day, complaining of the cold.”
The fire and heat, Miyoko Watanabe remembered, is what tormented most other victims. “There came a drove of people whose faces and clothes were burned black; almost naked and burned beyond recognition, they came tottering along, dangling their arms in front of them like ghosts; some had their work pants burned away save the elastic strings; others had all their clothes burned except for the front part. They all kept chanting, ‘Water! Give me water!’ ”
Their flesh was wet and “exposed juicily,” Watanabe-san said. Peeled skin hung “from their fingertips like seaweed.”
I told her I had come to Hiroshima to search for the story behind the kimono-scarred woman, and that I had just made some progress. I pulled out my wallet and removed a small piece of paper, on which I had written S. Ushio’s name.
“She is the woman in the photo?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Ahh.” Watanabe-san jumped back in her chair, and touched her shoulder, indicating, from memory, the spot where the pattern of S. Ushio’s kimono was most pronounced.
“I always use the photo in my talks,” Watanabe-san told me. “It is a picture that helps children understand the power of the bomb.”
Miyoko Watanabe had a serious and scholarly way of engaging visitors. On the day I met with her, she was dressed for business. She spoke briskly and with confidence. Her pitch-black hair was shortly cropped, just so, and was thinning on top. She wore a navy blue blazer. A gold brooch in the shape of a flower was pinned to the lapel.
There was, to my eye, a patina of sadness about Watanabe-san, despite her self-assurance. The features of her face seemed to sag, drawn by all she had lived through. Even the flower on her lapel pointed downward.
As we got to talking, I explained that the Ushio photo, in my opinion, was especially compelling because a kimono—the garment that symbolizes Japan—had scarred her skin. I asked Watanabe-san if she had any thoughts on the matter.
My question had the unexpected effect of transforming the nature of our conversation.
Kimonos meant something to her. Her voice softened. Her business demeanor eased. And she went back in time, to her childhood in prewar Japan.
Wearing a kimono was one of her earliest memories, she said. She recalled how her family, which was well-to-do, had collected a sizable number of kimonos, not everyday fare like S. Ushio’s, but expensive, elegant garments; and how once, as a child, she dressed in a beautiful kimono and marched in a parade.
“Watanabe-san,” I said, “do you remember the first time you wore a nice kimono after the atomic bombing?”
“It was for a New Year’s Day celebration, in 1948,” she said. “I was very happy. I got to wear makeup for the first time ever, and even curled my hair.”
The memory was powerful, and Miyoko Watanabe delighted in the pleasure of recounting it. She hugged herself at the recollection of how excited she was to wear that garment. “It was a red kimono with long sleeves. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t wait to put it on. It made feel me so proud.”
“Do you know where the red kimono is today?” I asked.
“My mother gave it away to my niece. Without my permission! I was furious!”
Watanabe-san paused, then, unexpectedly, covered her face. She began to cry. Her mother had acted badly, and decades later, the pain and anger remained.
She explained that the kimono transfer occurred when she was childless. Since the niece was the only young girl around, her mother presented the garment to her.
Watanabe-san later adopted a daughter but lacked a kimono to give her. So she bought a brand new one, equally beautiful. The purchase was her only option. It would have been inappropriate, she said, to ask her niece to return the original item.
When Miyoko Watanabe and I parted, I thanked her for sharing the red kimono tale with me. I pulled out a copy of the S. Ushio photograph and pointed to it.
“I don’t want this to be the only kimono story I tell.”
During my conversation with Watanabe-san, I mentioned that a reporter for the Chugoku Shimbun, the local newspaper, had told me that S. Ushio’s remains might be resting in the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound.
“I went inside the burial mound once,” Watanabe-san declared.
It was an unanticipated revelation. The Mound is a revered spot, one of the most solemn in Hiroshima. The remains of 70,000 unidentified souls lay inside its vault, along with several thousand others whose identity is known but whose ashes are unclaimed.
The vault is closed to the public. “No one can go in,” a City Hall spokesman told me. “Not even government officials. Only family members claiming remains are allowed inside.”
Japan is a rigidly bureaucratic country where rules are hardly ever broken. Watanabe-san’s visit to the Mound was extraordinary.
“There was an old woman who took care of the Mound,” Watanabe-san explained. “She cleaned it outside and inside. Even though it was prohibited, she let me inside the vault just one time because I knew her well. Her name was Toshiko Saeki.”
I visited the Mound at lunchtime one autumn day. It was smaller than I had imagined. A stone pagoda sat on its highest point, and trees hovered on the periphery.
I was hoping to see Toshiko Saeki, but she wasn’t there. But a man on a motorcycle drove up. He wore a helmet, black suit, and tie. He parked the vehicle off to the side, dismounted, and approached the Mound, where he bent over and lit a candle. Straightening himself up, he put his hands together, closed his eyes, bowed, and prayed. When he was finished, he hopped back onto the motorcycle, fixed his helmet, and drove off, back to the business of the day.
All the while, directly behind the Mound, a large memorial bell tolled. Its resonant, metallic tones drifted through the trees and settled above the man, anointing his prayers in sound.
I asked Watanabe-san to describe what was inside the Mound. She told me its underground vault was lined with shelves. The shelves held rows of containers filled with remains—the unidentified in wooden vessels, the identified in white china, with names written in black ink. The containers stood shoulder to shoulder, like soldiers at attention.
“I was so scared to go in,” Watanabe-san said, “because ashes were really there.
“My mother once told me a story,” she continued, “how one of her friends found a container inside the vault with the ashes of her son. She refused to take the remains. She felt it would be nice to keep them in the Mound, a place where so many people would come to pray for him. That would be good for his spirit.”
Toshiko Saeki, Watanabe-san’s friend, was a hibakusha. People called her the “guardian of the Mound” because of her constant presence there. She lost more than a dozen family members in the A-bomb attack, including her mother and younger sister. I never got to meet her, but I did read something she once said.
“The dead still cling to me,” she declared. “So I decided to live with the victims.”
When I first visited Hiroshima, I didn’t expect to meet somebody who grew up in my hometown, let alone somebody who had made a career thinking, writing, and teaching about Japan. Robert Jacobs, who goes by the nickname Bo, is a professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University. He describes himself as “a historian of nuclear technologies and radiation technopolitics.” He is interested in how exposure to radiation has affected people, families, and communities. And he has thought a lot about S. Ushio’s photograph, and the symbolism of her kimono-scarred back.
Bo and I shared the DNA of having been raised in Skokie, Illinois, a village north of Chicago. When we were kids, Skokie had a sizable Jewish population that included roughly 7,000 Holocaust survivors. It was one of the largest clusters in the U.S. of eyewitnesses to the atrocities of Hitler’s Final Solution.
We also had similar connections to WWII, albeit on different fronts. My father fought in Europe. Bo’s dad served in the Pacific theater. At a gathering in Germany after the Nazi capitulation, my father stood next to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, leader of the Allied forces. Bo’s father stood on a ship in Tokyo harbor when Japanese representatives, on board the USS Missouri, signed the Instrument of Surrender.
Bo and I came from common stock, and he also was one of the most articulate men I knew. I was curious to get his opinion about the Ushio photograph. We met one morning in downtown Hiroshima, less than a mile from ground zero.
Bo told me that in the years immediately following Japan’s surrender, the U.S. suppressed images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “There was an extremely concerted effort to keep any photograph of actual victims or survivors out of the public domain,” he said. The purpose was to skirt the issue of civilian casualties and to bolster President Truman’s assertion that the Japanese cities were military targets.
Life magazine, in its issue of Sept. 29, 1952, published the first graphic Hiroshima photos, calling them “Atom Blasts Through Eyes of Victims.” S. Ushio was not among them. With time, however, her picture was published widely. “It’s one of the photographs you encounter when you begin to read anything about Hiroshima,” Bo said.
If that was the case, I asked, why had S. Ushio remained an anonymous victim, her name hidden in the archives, the story of her life, and of her death, unknown?
If, in fact, she had died, Bo said, surviving family members would not have publicized her case. “Perhaps she was buried in a mass grave and wasn’t honored properly. It might be easier just not to talk.” Silence would avoid any embarrassment or shame at the impropriety, albeit forced by circumstances, of having failed to say a proper goodbye.
There was also the issue of humility. “I think there could be elements of not wanting to stand out and claim anything special about having her as a family member, compared to the other tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands who died. And,” he added parenthetically, “there is a great stigmatization of hibakusha.”
I halted the conversation at that point. How, I wondered, could anybody view A-bomb survivors disapprovingly? They were, it seemed to me, a hallowed class of noncombatants who had lived through the unimaginable, much like the Holocaust survivors Bo and I grew up with in Skokie. Our neighbors from Auschwitz may, on occasion, have kept to themselves, but not because they were shunned.
“Many hibakusha,” Bo explained, “have tried to hide their exposure to radiation because, along with radiation, comes fear. People feared that hibakusha were still in some unknown way contaminated, that hibakusha were likely to have children with genetic problems who would make undesirable marriage partners. A-bomb survivors had reasons to downplay their identification. That may have kept the Ushio family from publicly embracing her victimhood.”
Most Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors could cloak their status, if they so chose, simply by keeping silent. There was nothing about the way they looked that gave them away.
But S. Ushio could not hide. Her kimono scars guaranteed that. It was the same for my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Herskovitz. The numbers tattooed on her arm identified her as a survivor whenever her shirtsleeve slipped up.
“That’s what drew me to the Ushio photo,” I told Bo. “When I first saw the kimono pattern burned onto her skin, I immediately thought of German concentration-camp tattoos, and of the numbers on my neighbor’s arm, Mrs. Herskovitz. Both imprints were a sort of wartime branding.
“What happened to Ushio took place in entirely different circumstances from what happened to Mrs. Herskovitz,” I said. Mrs. Herkovitz was a victim of genocide unleashed by a vile aggressor regime. S. Ushio was victimized by having been born in Japan, the aggressor nation responsible for unleashing war in the Pacific. Historians may argue whether Harry Truman’s decision to use an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was justifiable, but there is no doubt that Japan, like Nazi Germany, was a belligerent nation that had to be stopped.
“But still,” I added, “the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima were equally horrifying for the victims, and in that sense, the branding of S. Ushio and Mrs. Herskovitz were equally appalling.”
“It’s the impersonal nature of the horror of war,” Bo said. “The Jews were given those numbers to replace their individual identity, which was wiped from the slate as part of a mechanized process of killing. And the same is true for the woman with the kimono pattern burned on her. She was merely part of a city of hundreds of thousands of people who were, in a single instance, scorched and killed and irradiated. Her victimhood in war was completely impersonal.”
At the same time, Bo noted, the kimono scars on S. Ushio’s flesh were personal, in a most distinctive, invasive and intimate way.
“There were so many people killed,” he said, “so many scorched bodies. But she is marked specifically. She was burned in a specific way, and what that restores to her is her individuality. That’s one of the only reasons that we even think of her. And that’s one of the reasons this picture is important to us.”
Robert Rand is the author of several books, including My Suburban Shtetl: A Novel about Life in a Twentieth-Century Jewish American Village. His reporting in Japan was supported in part by the Fulbright Program and the Asian Cultural Council.