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Hiroshima survivor to mark anniversary of atomic bomb attack

August 5, 2020

Keiko Ogura intends to commemorate August 6 in peaceful contemplation alongside the river at Peace Park — but will never talk about her experiences with her own children.

The Hiroshima A-bomb blast photographed by the US military on August 6, 1945
Image: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Keiko Ogura had celebrated her eighth birthday just two days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. She was standing outside her home just 2.4 kilometers (1.49 miles) from the hypocenter of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon to be used in war but, miraculously, survived.   

And while physically she is still a fit and healthy 83-year-old today, the toll that the bomb took on her was internalized and left unspoken until the death of her brother from cancer. Since 1980, Ogura has been a regular speaker at commemorative and educational events linked to the bomb, although she still will not talk to her own children about her experiences.

It is, she says, too much for them to hear. Ogura tells me that the bomb is the one thing that she will never discuss with her children. And she can trace that reluctance to an incident in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Keiko Ogura, a survivor, speaks during a video press conference from Hiroshima, western Japan
'I am planning to go and stand by the river in the Peace Park and just recall those days,' says OguraImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/FCCJ

Survivor of the bomb

"I was standing outside my house when the bomb detonated, but I was shielded by a storehouse," she told DW. "I was blown over and knocked senseless by the blast, and when I opened my eyes again all the houses around me were damaged and on fire."

Remarkably, all her family survived the initial blast, although one brother had been far closer to the hypocenter and later contracted cancer and died.

"I had some burns, but nothing too serious," Ogura said. "Our home was damaged but not completely destroyed, so we took in people who had been injured." Local residents had been instructed that in the event of an air raid, they were to move to the grounds of temples and shrines in the hills surrounding the city. A Shinto shrine stood on a hill close to Ogura's home and she describes a constant stream of disfigured and desperate people heading for its sanctuary. Many died on the way and their bodies lined the roads. 

"I was shocked to see them," she said. "There were two people who were badly hurt, one grabbed me by the ankle and they pleaded with me to give them water. So I did. I did not know that we were not meant to. Both of them died in front of me. 

"I kept that moment a secret from everyone else because I felt so much guilt at giving them water. So I suffered from that memory for years. It's something I cannot tell my own children." 

Another memory is of the countless people who died around her home. Her father told her not to go to the local park, but she was curious and climbed a low hill from where she could see her father and other survivors gently lifting the bodies onto funeral pyres that burned around the clock. 

How one girl shaped our understanding of Hiroshima

Enola Gay payload

The "Little Boy" uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima from the US Air Force B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay at 8.15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The bomb detonated with an energy equivalent to 16,000 tons of TNT about 580 meters (1,902 feet) above the distinctively shaped Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, a structure now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

An estimated 80,000 people died in the initial blast from the bomb and the firestorm that it triggered, with intense neutron and gamma radiation lethal to a radius of 1.3 kilometers. A further 70,000 were injured, while at least 6,000 people survived the blast and fire but later succumbed to radiation injuries. The vast majority of the victims were civilians. US military surveys shortly after the war determined that 4.7 square miles (12.2 square kilometers) of the city had been destroyed. 

Read more: How the Japanese view Obama's Hiroshima visit

A recent study by Kyodo News found that 78% of survivors of either the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which took place on August 9, find it difficult to talk about their experiences. More than 40% of the survivors said they had never shared their memories of the bombings.

Many, Ogura says, moved away from the cities and never told their new friends and neighbors where they had come from due to the stigma attached to being exposed to radiation. 

"No one wanted to talk about it," she said. "And if people found out that we came from Hiroshima, they would shun us. I experienced it myself; I was an eligible young woman and a young man came to the city to meet me and his first question was whether I was from Hiroshima. And he left."

At a time of ignorance about the lingering after-effects of radiation, people did not want to take a chance that their new husband or wife would get sick, would pass that illness on to other people or have damaged or deformed babies. Thankfully, that sort of discrimination is rare now.

Children at Peace Park

The Peace Park, on an island in the Motoyasu River, is visited by thousands of Japanese schoolchildren every year and the experiences of the survivors make up an important part of the syllabus.

Critics have charged, however, that years of conservative political leadership of Japan mean that the atomic bomb is taught largely without the context of what had gone before, including the invasion and often brutal subjugation of the Korean Peninsula, large parts of China and Southeast Asia.

There is passing reference to Pearl Harbor as the start of the conflict with the US, but nothing about the Rape of Nanjing, the brutal treatment of Allied POWs or the forced conscription of "comfort women" to serve in frontline brothels for the Japanese military. 

"We learn how terrible the firebomb attacks on Tokyo were, as well as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks," said Leo Shigeno, a 19-year-old university student. "We are told that Japan was the victim and I only know about what happened before that because I'm very interested in history and I have read foreign history books about the war years. 

"The right wing in Japan is influential and many of them still deny that the Rape of Nanjing, for example, even happened," he said. "They insist it is all Chinese propaganda. And yes, what happened in Hiroshima was terrible, but Japanese people are not taught that it happened for a reason."

Politics irrelevant

For Ogura and the other survivors, the politics are irrelevant. She has attended virtually every August 6 memorial ceremony for the attack, often with her volunteer group, Interpreters for Peace, but she says this year the authorities are limiting numbers to the official event because of the fear of coronavirus. 

"This year will be unusual," she admits. "I am planning to go and stand by the river in the Peace Park and just recall those days. And I know that I will feel great regret that even now, there are so many nuclear weapons in the world. 

"I have prayed for many years that we would manage to get them abolished, but the situation has not changed in the way that I wanted," she added. "So I shall keep telling my story."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea