Hiroshima Maidens

The focal point of the Hibakusha Maidens project was the treatment of young girls who had been disfigured or crippled by the bombing

by Norman Cousins

In 1949, The Saturday Review undertook a “Moral Adoptions” project in Hiroshima for the care of some 400 children who were orphaned by the atomic explosion. Readers of the magazine, responding to the appeal of the editorial page, “adopted” the children at a distance. Their support made it possible to build new orphanages and to enlarge old ones. The “parents” corresponded with their foster children and with the heads of the orphanages. In addition to contributing to the general support of the orphanages, the Americans made it possible for the children to receive special educational training. Eventually, most of the orphans went to college or vocational schools under the Moral Adoptions plan.

A related project in Hiroshima undertaken by the magazine was medical and rehabilitative in nature. The focal point of this program was the treatment of young girls who had been disfigured or crippled by the bombing. The project began in 1953 and continued for four years.

The “Hiroshima Peace Center Associates,” referred to several times in this section, ivas formed by the editors as the operating American agency to administer the Moral Adoptions program and the program for treat¬ment of the Hiroshima Maidens.

A second major project undertaken by the magazine concerned the “Ravensbrueck Lapins,” a group of Polish ladies who had been used as medical guinea pigs by Nazi doctors during the Second World War. Aided by the experiences of treating the Hiroshima Maidens, the maga¬zine brought the Polish ladies to the United States for medical, surgical, and psychotherapeutic treatment.

The following excerpt is drawn from articles and editorials appearing in the magazine. You can DOWNLOAD THE FULL DOCUMENT

It was at the Nagarekawa United Church of Christ in Hiroshima that I first met the “Hiroshima Maidens,” Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the American-educated Japanese Methodist minister and one of the central figures in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, had often referred to the Maidens in his letters to me following my 1949 visit. When my wife Ellen and I arrived at the Hiroshima railroad station in August, 1953, he met us and spoke of the predicament of the Maidens.

The girls, some sixty in number, had drifted together out of common experience and common loneliness. All were survivors of the experience in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. All were badly disfigured or crippled by the heat and blast of the bomb. Most had been young schoolgirls at the time. As they grew older, they became separated from the kind of ex¬pectations that light up the world of teen-age girls. The prospect of marriage and children was almost nonexistent.

Adding to this sense of alienation was the fear of being seen in public. The tendency of human beings to shun and even subconsciously to resent human beings with deformities is strong in Japanese culture. The Maidens had no sense of ease in moving about the city during daylight. A few of them had. jobs—generally in social welfare activities, such as the School for the Blind. Most of them, however, stayed at home.

Dr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto became their crusader and benefactor. He brought them together, gave them things to do, individually and collectively, and provided focus for their lives. Plastic surgery as a disciplined branch of surgery had yet to be developed in Japan.

All this Kiyoshi Tanimoto made known to Ellen and me on our way from the railroad station to the hotel. He asked whether we would come to his church to meet the girls. We agreed.

The Nagarekawa Church had been partially destroyed by the bomb. Tanimoto had personally supervised the rebuilding. It was a modest structure, brick and stucco, not unlike the type of small church building one might find in the United States. The basement had a fairly large meeting room. It was here that we met the Maidens.

There were perhaps thirty or thirty-five of them. They sat quietly on the hard benches. Each of them came forward as Kiyoshi Tanimoto introduced them, giving a little background. Then he interpreted as the girls spoke of their experiences.

Dr. Tanimoto said the girls had read about advances in plastic surgery in the United States and hoped for the miracle that would enable them to come to America for the operations that might return them, at least to a small degree, to a normal life.

I watched the girls closely as they spoke of their hopes about coming to America. There was something akin to a sense of transport in their voices. I knew I would have to be careful about creating false expectations, so I said I had no way of knowing whether what they wanted to do could be done. At any rate, I would stay in touch with Dr. Tanimoto and tell him what I learned after my return to the States.

It was almost two years before the preparations were completed.

The natural agency in the United States to handle this project, we felt, was the Hiroshima Peace Center Associates, Inc., a group of Americans interested in Hiroshima who had administered the Moral Adoptions Plan. The HPCA board agreed to sponsor the new project.

But during the first six months after our return from Japan, things went slowly—dismally so. We went to foundation after foundation, seeking money for doctors, surgeons, hospital care, home care, transportation. And foundation after foundation turned us down. One was fearful that if one of the Maidens died on the operating table the foundation would be held responsible. Another was concerned about the political views of the girls and was reluctant to furnish ammunition to some future congressional investigating committee. Still another felt that, unless all the Hiroshima victims could be cared for, it might be a mistake to do something for any single group. Any number of foundations expressed sympathy, but said their charters did not provide for mercy projects of this particular nature.

Dr. William M. Hitzig, my personal physician and friend, brought the project to the attention of the director and board of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, with which he was affiliated. As a result of these discussions Dr. Arthur J. Barsky, one of the nation s most prominent plastic surgeons, agreed to take charge of all operative work, assisted by his staff. The Mt. Sinai Hospital volunteered to supply operating facilities and hospital bed care free of charge. The contribution of the surgeons and hospital was both substantial and heroic, since four or five operations per patient might be necessary, and each girl might have to spend four to six months in the hospital. It would be a year before the party could return to Japan.

A special committee of the American Friends Service Committee was created to map out a program for the girls when not in the hospital. The girls were to live in American homes, share family activities and responsibilities, and receive special education or training that might be useful in making them self-sufficient on their return to Japan. Mrs. Jeanne Lewisohn, who had served as volunteer executive secretary of the Orphans project, now agreed to act as coordinator for the Maidens.

But the transportation problem held up the project for more than a year. We tried the airlines, only to run into official regulations concerning free passage. We went back to the foundations, with no greater success than before. Then Miss Janet Tobitt, one of the “moral adoptions” parents who had recently returned from a year in Japan, suggested that Mr. Kiyoshi Togasaki, resourceful president of the Nippon Times, English-language newspaper of Tokyo, might be persuaded to work on the transportation problem. It turned out to be an inspired idea. After exploring every approach, Mr, Togasakii arrived at a solution as ingenious as it was effective. He went to General J. E. Hull (U.S. Army, Far East Command) and asked whether the U.S. Air Force would fly the girls. After being supplied with detailed information about the project, General Hull said yes. Pan-American World Airways agreed to fly the Maidens back to Japan.

In Hiroshima, Mr. Togasaki met with Mayor Shinzo Hamai and Dr. Tanimoto, who felt that the American doctors ought to come to Hiroshima to pass on the girls being screened for the trip. They would have to rule out girls suffering from tuberculosis or other diseases that would make their coming to the United States inadvisable. Also, they believed that everything ought to be done to avoid sending any Maiden unless there was a reasonably good chance that her disfiguration might respond to surgery.

Another suggestion made by Mr. Togasaki was that two or three Japanese surgeons be permitted to accompany the party to the United States in order to study American plastic surgery techniques at first hand. Then, on their return to Japan, the surgeons could work with other sufferers.

These suggestions were readily accepted by the American committee. Both Dr. Barsky and Dr. Hitzig seemed startled when they were asked to give up a month’s practice in addition to paying all their own expenses in Japan, but they agreed to undertake the trip if we would accompany them. Mt. Sinai Hospital offered full hospitality to the Japanese surgeons accompanying the Maidens.

This, then, was the way the venture finally took shape—as a nongovernmental, volunteer citizens’ project to bring the girls to the United States for the finest kind of treatment that modern medical science had to offer.

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The project group assembled in Tokyo in April,1955.

News of the project had been prematurely published in Japan. Thus, weeks before we arrived in Hiroshima other Maidens had presented them nselves to the local committee for consideration. By the time we arrived there was a total of forty-three. The project had been set up originally to accommodate approximately twenty.

Nor were we prepared for the fact that the project had become page one news, with the press requesting daily briefing sessions. The Japanese press was constructive and friendly, although the questions were often severe. Why were we really doing this in the first place? Who was putting up the money? Was there anything to the story that the United States government was secretly sponsoring and paying for the project, as a means of building good will to offset the bad impression created by the radioactive fallout on the Japanese fishermen following the now-famous tost explosion the previous year? What about the rumor that the project was only a facade for a sideshow group which planned to take the girls on a coast-to-coast exhibition tour of America at a fancy admission charge?

Most of these questions, of course, were quickly and easily disposed of and were seldom repeated at later press conferences. The newspapers got behind the project and gave it strong support. But two questions persisted, and for a good reason. We didn’t know the answers ourselves. One question: Why were we really doing this? The other: What about those who couldn’t come to the United States?

The first question was difficult because the key to it was probably lodged deep within our subconscious. We searched our minds in long discussions late each night and didn’t spare each other as we probed for answers. As individual citizens we no doubt felt a strong personal responsibility for the first atomic weapon to be used against human beings. Yet didn’t the very nature of war place it beyond the control of the individual, whether with respect to the sufferer or the person who is inflicting the suffering? The feeling of guilt, while real enough, was not the whole answer and we knew it.

Was there something in the personal experience of each of us that might furnish a clue? One of us, it developed, had a father who was also a physician; the sacrifices made by the father in caring for people who were too poor to pay left both a strong impression on the son and a feeling of debt to his memory. Perhaps this project was a small payment on the debt, Another one of us had experienced a serious illness as a child. He had been aware that he might never reach adulthood; now, many years later, with his health completely regained, he felt his life was something of an unexpected dividend which he perhaps wished to share. The third member of the trio made no bones about the fact that a feeling of usefulness gave him his greatest satisfaction in life.

All this seemed too personal for public discussion. Finally, we told the newsmen we doubted that we knew the answer ourselves. As it concerned the Maidens, each of us happened to be in a position where we might be of some help and we were responding as best we could, simply because we wanted to. Apparently the answer registered. The question never came up again.

In attempting to find an answer to the second question we went I directly to the Maidens themselves. Were we justified in starting such a project, we asked them, when we had only limited means at our disposal? Should individual citizens undertake a task such as this, in view of the fact that they would leave a large part of the problem untouched? Would it have been better to leave the matter to government? What could we say to the girls who couldn’t come, either because they were medically unable to do so or because we lacked die means to take care of them? And how could we ease the burden of those who were selected, for their hearts would be heavy with the knowledge that their own selection meant that others could not go?

The answers from the Maidens were to be found in everything they did and said during the days we were in Hiroshima. They were the ones who cheered us up. We had come prepared to be lively in manner in order to lighten the strain of the medical examinations. We wanted to eliminate any aspect of competition between the girls in our dealings with them. But the girls had anticipated our apprehensions. There was nothing hesitant or pathetic about their manner. Their spirit was independent, alert, gay. The doctors didn’t have to put on a professional act of being cheerful and reassuring. Within a day after meeting the girls they had caught the contagion of ease and pleasantness radiated by the Maidens. The examinations themselves were facilitated by the local hospitals. The American Bomb Casualty Commission stood by with whatever medical resources might be necessary. The three Japanese doctors who had been selected to travel to the United States with the Maidens for the purpose of observing modern reconstructive surgical techniques were on hand to help. The Maidens sat on benches in the corridor outside the waiting room chatting happily among themselves.

On the evening before the final selections were made the Maidens went to Mr. Tanimoto’s church for special services. The doctors and I were not present, but we learned later what had happened. Each of the girls had a prayer to offer. Most of the prayers had two parts. The first part was for the American doctors, that they might know no anguish for not being able to take all the girls, and that they might understand that the girls themselves understood. The second part of the prayer was that those girls who were selected would know no anguish because others would be left behind….

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present-tense-book-cover-125pxExcerpted from the Norman Cousin’s book Present Tense: An American Editor’s Odyssey, New York, McGraw Hill Book Company, 1967. Although out of print, used copies are available at AMAZON