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How surviving Nagasaki shaped the life of an IPPNW doctor

July 15, 2016

[The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has published a special edition of its flagship publication, The International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), on the human cost of nuclear weapons. The issue contains interviews with Hibakusha, including one with Dr. Masao Tomanaga, IPPNW’s regional vice president for North Asia, former director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital, and a survivor of the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The following excerpts are reprinted with the permission of the IRRC. The full interview and the entire issue of the journal are available on the IRRC website.]

Masao Tomonaga

Masao Tomonaga

Dr Tomonaga, you were a small child at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. What was your personal experience of the atomic bombing and its immediate aftermath?

I was born on 5 June 1943. At the time of the bombing, I was two years and two months old. That morning, I was sleeping on the second floor of our Japanese-style wooden house in a Japanese-style bed, when suddenly the blast from the atomic bomb crushed our house. Fortunately I was not harmed, maybe because I was protected by the bed itself and the ceiling of the house did not hit me directly.

After the blast, my mother, who had been preparing food, searched for me in the rubble of what had been my bedroom, and found I was still sleeping in the bed. She got me out of the ruins of our house, which burned to the ground ten to fifteen minutes after the initial blast. These are the dual physical effects of an atomic bomb: first the blast and then the fire. A huge fire broke out in the area where my house was after the blast. My mother and I escaped to nearby Japanese shrine, where we spent one night. I have no memory of this experience because I was very young; my mother told me the story when I became older.

At the time, my father was serving in the Japanese Army Air Force and was stationed in Taiwan. From Taiwan, he heard that first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki had been totally destroyed by two new atomic bombs. He thought his family had perished in Nagasaki until about a month later, when he got a letter from my mother telling him that we were alive.

My father was captured in the war and held as a prisoner in Taiwan, so even after he learned we were alive, he could not come back to Nagasaki right away. Since he was a military doctor, he was allowed to practise medicine for people near the air force base where he was detained. He spent a year and a half there before he was allowed to return to Nagasaki. After his return, he became an associate professor of the medical school, his alma mater. When he started to practise medicine again, he found that there was a rapid increase in leukaemia among atomic bomb survivors, especially children. Over time, as a doctor treating patients in Nagasaki, my father inevitably became a specialist in treating atomic bomb survivors.

Based on this account, one might say that you continued the work of your father. Is he the one that inspired you to specialize in the effects of radiation?

Yes. When I was in high school, I began to think I should become a doctor, like my father. I decided to become a medical doctor when I learned that there was such a rapidly growing occurrence of leukaemia among children who survived the atomic bomb. I wanted to become a specialist in medical research into the health effects of the atomic bomb.

I was also interested in the effects of radiation because I wondered if I was affected by the atomic bomb. The rapid increase in leukaemia cases made me somewhat concerned about the effects of radiation on my own body when I was studying to enter medical school. After I began medical school, I started to learn more about the atomic bomb’s effects.

Although I was worried, I never suffered from the effects of the atomic bomb, probably because my house was located just over 2.5 kilometres from ground zero. This area was estimated to have a very low dose of radiation, fortunately – only 20 millisievert.

Going back to the explosion of the atomic bomb, we know it caused massive damage and destruction, which you yourself survived and have learned about through your mother. What were the immediate, short- and long term medical consequences for the survivors of the atomic bomb?

The Nagasaki medical university was left in ruins. It is located only 600 metres from the hypocentre. Nine hundred professors and medical students were killed almost instantly, and the university hospital, which was the largest hospital in Nagasaki, was completely destroyed by the bomb. Because of this, there was no meaningful medical care available for surviving hibakusha immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped.

To further complicate matters, for a few days no medical rescue could reach those affected. Heavily irradiated survivors of the atomic bomb all died within one to two months because there were no effective treatments, not even antibiotics or blood transfusions, and because the infrastructure was totally destroyed, including hospitals and pharmacies. Although those survivors exposed to radiation within 1.5 kilometres of the hypocentre were treated as best as they could have been under the circumstances, many, many survivors died in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

Within 1.5 kilometres of the hypocentre there were significant short-term medical effects, such as destruction of bone marrow and mucosa, or colon surface, which causes bleeding and infections for a few months.

How were the survivors treated by the rest of the Japanese people? Is there any stigma to having been in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the cities were bombed?

There was some social stigma. Some people could not get married in the very early recovery phase, in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many people who were not exposed to the atomic bomb were hesitant to allow their sons or daughters to get married to atomic bomb survivors. That was a kind of social discrimination. But gradually this segregation disappeared and many survivors could have a normal family life.

It took almost ten years to reach an understanding of the effects of the atomic bomb. Some people were heavily affected – those who were located a short distance from the centre of the blast – but those who were some distance away seemed fine. Once this was widely recognized, there was no more of such discrimination in allowing marriage with survivors.

I myself never personally experienced any social stigma, but the woman I mentioned earlier who suffered severe burns on her face could not get married and could not get hired for normal jobs. Eventually she became a housekeeper at the university hospital. Her salary was very low. Every day for her whole life, she swept all the corridors at the hospital until she was 65 years old, when she moved into the nursing home. She had a very lonely life, but when she was about 50 years old, she decided to talk about her experience of the atomic bombing. She became a very famous protester against the atomic bomb. She was even invited to visit the Pope in Rome. That was an extremely happy point in her life. But it took more than forty years for her to feel comfortable talking about her experience, and she did so only because she felt that otherwise the world would never eradicate the atomic bomb.

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