Who Are The Hibakusha?

The main focus of Hibakusha Stories is to highlight the gifts we receive from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and how we might use these gifts to create a peaceful and sustainable world.

Atomic Bomb survivors are referred to in Japanese as hibakusha, which translates literally as “bomb-affected-people”. According to the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, there are certain recognized categories of hibakusha: people exposed directly to the bomb and its immediate aftermath; people exposed within a 2 kilometer radius who entered the sphere of destruction within two weeks of the explosion; people exposed to radioactive fallout generally; and those exposed in utero, whose mothers were pregnant and contaminated in any of these defined categories.

The Japanese Government, after much insistence and activism on the part of hibakusha, was forced to offer financial and medical assistance to atomic bomb survivors who have received official status.  In 1956, Nihon Hidankyo (the Confederation of A and H Bomb Sufferers) was formed.  Hidankyo members, all of whom are hibakusha, fought for and won the enactment of two laws: the “A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law” (1956) and the “Law on Special Measures for Sufferers” (1967).  Thanks to the dedication and persistence of many hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors residing in Japan as well as ex-pats living in other countries, receive a monthly allowance.

Still, there are many hibakusha who not only suffer ill health due to radiation exposure, but discrimination at the hands of fellow Japanese.  In 1945, little was known about the effects of radioactive contamination, and rumors spread that radiation exposure was like an infectious disease. Traumatized by their experience of the “unforgettable fire” they fell victim to discrimination and were found ineligible for work and marriage.  Sadly, discrimination against hibakusha continues to this day and has been compounded or perhaps renewed by the on-going radiological catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.

As the label hibakusha refers also to people who have been exposed to radiation, its common usage has spread to encompass any person exposed to radiation from the nuclear fuel chain, through the use and production of nuclear weapons as well as the processes that create and produce nuclear power.

Arguably, the most famous hibakusha was a young girl called Sadako Sasaki. Exposed to radiation at the age of 2, she survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima but later contracted leukemia, a widely recognized illness connected to radioactive contamination.  Sadako was inspired by the Japanese legend that says: if you fold 1,000 paper cranes your wish will come true.  Although Sadako died, her legacy lives on.  Today the most visited site in the Hiroshima Peace Park is the statue dedicated to this young girl whose determination to live created an enduring symbol for peace in the world: an origami crane.

Hibakusha Stories encourages students and teachers to read Sadako’s story, to learn to fold paper cranes and share them with middle schools in your area so that the students who learn from listening to the hibakusha can pass their message to younger generations.