Let down by two governments, US-based Hiroshima survivors fend for themselves

Jul 27, 2015

From the archives: This is the third in a four-part series published in 2005 on the lingering mental health effects of the atomic bomb.

For the estimated 1,000 US-based survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, life in the United States has had its ups and downs. Some have questioned their own identity; others have struggled with discrimination. Nearly all have felt pressured to hide what happened to them on August 6, 1945.

Teruko Morinaka, 73, is American, born in Toledo, Ohio. When she was five, her Japanese father moved the family to Hiroshima. Except for one sister, her family survived the atomic bomb.

In 1950, Morinaka returned to the US with her new husband. When her mother-in-law heard that she was an A-bomb survivor, she told Morinaka to keep it quiet. "When I came from Japan, that's the first thing she said — because people think you're going to have crippled kids or whatever,” Morinaka explains. “So she was always telling me, ‘Don't ever tell anybody.’"

As it turns out, her kids are fine. But Morinaka has various chronic ailments, probably related to radiation exposure: Intense heat rashes, kidney failure, long-term fatigue. As she gets older and her health declines, it becomes more difficult to figure out the cause.

A legal victory

In 2001, the Japanese government began assisting Morinaka and other atomic bomb survivors living outside Japan. The help began after a Korean survivor won a discrimination suit, compelling authorities to pay monthly medical allowances to all overseas survivors. Now, it seemed, survivors living in the US would be treated the same way as their counterparts in Japan.

But Morinaka wasn't so sure. To apply for those benefits, she'd still have to travel to Hiroshima, 13 hours flying time from Los Angeles — a daunting journey for a sick, elderly person. So Morinaka brought her own lawsuit, arguing that she should be able to apply for her benefits in the US. Earlier this year, she won her case, but the government is appealing.

The fact that Japanese authorities still resist helping survivors in the US confirms what many Japanese American survivors have believed for years, that they are on their own.

"I felt that Japan was my mother country and US was my father country," says Mitsuo Tomozawa, a US citizen born in Hawaii to Japanese parents. "I felt really bad that my father and mother are fighting. Then the war ended and we tried to get help from the father country and the mother country. Neither of them would offer any help."

In the decades after the war, the Japanese government wanted nothing to do with survivors who had left for the US. The US government had negotiated an agreement with the Japanese, absolving it of any responsibility for bomb victims. Also disheartening for survivors was a not-so-subtle message closer to home to keep quiet.

Pressure to keep quiet

Mitsuo Tomozawa recalls that when one group of California survivors tried to publicize their plight, the Japanese American establishment objected. "They were accused by the Japanese community leaders, saying, 'You guys shut up,’” he says. “‘If you talk about the A-bomb and radiation, the whole Japanese community is going to be discriminated against.’”

Don't rock the boat: that was the Japanese way. But gradually, America's confessional culture has rubbed off on a few US-based survivors. 

"Survivors here in the United States still have the reluctance to speak about it, but not as much as people in Japan,” Tomozawa says. “Japanese culture says you don't talk about that; you’re supposed to say, ‘it can't be helped, let's not talk about the past, look in the future,’ and so forth. But in the United States, we tend to think we'd better speak up and let people know what happened there."

Today, there are other reasons why survivors fear talking about their Hiroshima experiences. American reasons, like fear that health insurers might not cover treatment for radiation-related illnesses.

A registered A-bomb survivor, Teruko Namura, 78, now receives a medical allowance from the Japanese government. She's relatively healthy, so it wasn't a problem for her to travel from her home in Los Angeles to Japan to apply for the benefit. Being to Hiroshima again brought back painful old memories. But she says they would be even more painful if she kept quiet about them. So she and a survivor friend regularly talk about Hiroshima and what they saw on August 6, 1945.

A haunting memory

"You see a big fire and all the smoke, like a mushroom," recalls Namura. "Outside there are a lot of people with all raggedy clothes and their skin and their hair all like that, and you feel like you're seeing ghosts."

A few hours after the bomb hit, Namura had made her way to the school where she worked. A group of injured people arrived.

"They wanted to have water so bad,” she says. “But when we were young, we were told that if you drink too much water when you have been burned, you'll die. So we didn't give them water. But later on, I wish I'd given them some because they were going to die anyway. I wish I had given them a little bit of water."

Many survivors have similar recollections, moments in the bomb's aftermath when they wished they'd done more. These are not memories that fade easily with age. But speaking about them makes them more bearable.


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International