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Support from others is vital to overcoming nuclear tragedy

Hiroshima survivor encourages people of Fukushima

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
  • ucanews.com correspondent, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • August 6, 2012
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When the atomic bomb detonated on August 6, 1945, Hiroshima resident Teruko Ueno was in a hospital 1.5km south of the epicenter.

Ueno, now 82 and still living in the city, was a nurse. The building she was in collapsed on top of her, but she had managed to crouch beneath a desk and, when she came to her senses, she was on the roof somehow. She heard cries for help and set about putting out fires and giving assistance wherever possible.

“Before I knew it, it was six o’clock in the evening. The area in front of the hospital was filled with the dead and wounded,” Ueno recalls. “A person would ask for water, take one drink, and then die—that’s how it was with almost everyone.”

There were legions of sick people who died without any medicine to give them comfort, and all Ueno could do was burn their bodies after they were dead. “Imagine if you told a 15- or 16-year-old girl to do such a thing these days… well, at the time I didn’t get queasy or anything, I just did the best I could.”

Although so many around her—including the doctors and hospital staff—were dying, Ueno was so unharmed that she says she finally used some bandages to fake a wound out of “shame.”

Ueno’s elder sister was about two kilometers from ground zero and also survived the bomb that day. But although she later married and had children, her cheeks turned purple, her heart was weak, and she died of “atomic bomb disease” six years after the war.

“The people in the neighborhood called it “a contagious disease, a mysterious disease” and acted like they were touching something hideous.”

Ueno herself never left Hiroshima, and her husband was also a survivor of the bomb, so she managed to avoid any discrimination when she married. She also acquired a copy of The Atomic Bomb Survivors’ Handbook in 1961. But she says, “Some people didn’t dare to get a copy for themselves for fear of stigma.”

As an example of the potential problems, Ueno explained how one of her friends hid the fact that she was a bomb survivor when she married. “She died five or six years ago, but she’d been living in the city and had two kids. Anyway, one day she received a notice about a study by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, and her family found out. They’d harass her, saying ‘We shouldn’t have been saddled with a bomb-scarred woman as a bride'.”

Ueno heard that many of her classmates had suffered in similar ways. Of the fact that she herself has suffered no medical after-effects, she can only say, “I think it’s some sort of divine protection.”

Pregnancy was always a time of trepidation for Ueno and her children. “The baby will probably have some disability,” they were told. Ueno kept her spirits up with frequent visits to temples. The priests tried to console her, saying, “Ms. Ueno, don’t worry. You’ll have a wonderful child.” Ueno says, “I had three children; they all turned out healthy, and they’re all alive today.”

“[In the wake of the bombing] we were told that ‘not even the plants will grow back [in Hiroshima].’ The next year I was living in accommodation by the river and getting back to business, with no particular disease to speak of. But we had just lost the war, and in the aftermath the government wouldn’t do anything for us.”

Ueno has turned her attention to the survivors of a more recent nuclear tragedy—that in Fukushima last year. She calls it "a pity" that people there are suffering the same kinds of discrimination those around her had.

“In Hiroshima, if they’d measured and published the radiation levels, people might have been even more panicked. We might not have been able to go back there. As it was everyone just went back to the places they’d been living before," she said.

“Unlike post-war Japan, there are no food shortages right now. In fact, there’s nothing to worry about at all. Maybe I only feel this way because I’m old, but I want to tell people to seek the protection of gods or Buddha and concentrate on growing to be the best people they can be. Also, I would like people to give each other encouragement, because the psychological aspect is the most important.”
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