Hiroshima 60 years on: Children of Hiroshima

Seven-year-old Masaaki Tanabe spent that hot and humid summer playing in the gardens of the industrial promotion hall, beneath the striking green dome which had become a local landmark. In those days Hiroshima, set against rolling mountain peaks and spread across a delta dotted by bridges, was known as the ”city of water”.

Here the old Japan merged with the new: women in kimonos mingled with men in suits, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and Kabuki theatres were neighbours to shops, cinemas, clothing factories, gambling houses — and military installations. The child, descended from a samurai warrior who once ruled Hiroshima, lived next to the industrial promotion hall in a sumptuous house with a tiled roof, tamati-matted floors and sliding wood and paper doors.

”For children the industrial promotion hall was the best playground there was,” said Tanabe, now 67. ”I rode my tricycle in the gardens there. With friends I slid down the handrail of the spiral staircase in the hall. There was a park beside the hall where we caught insects and dragonflies and played hide and seek and jumped into the river from the bridge. It was so much fun.”

The Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, built in Western style by a Czech architect in 1915, was a symbol of modernity, and boys peer in for a glimpse at the modern world. ”Inside they sometimes had tap dancing by Japan’s best dancers, although not as good as Fred Astaire. Or they played jazz on a gramophone and people danced the tango. They played Western music and it was very exciting. But by 1944 songs and films to raise the morale of the Japanese people for war prevailed,” Tanabe said.

The Second World War, in many Western minds, was to make Hiroshima less a geographical place than an image and an event: a blasted landscape dated 6 August 1945, when the American B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay shimmered out of a beautiful blue sky and dropped on it the bomb, nicknamed ”Little Boy” by its makers, which seconds later became the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. At 8.15am the uranium atom bomb exploded 580m above the city with a blinding flash, creating a fireball that blazed like a small sun with a temperature of more than a million degrees Celcius at the centre. In one second the fireball reached a diameter of 280m, sending surface temperatures to 4 000C. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, unleashing a high pressure shockwave, vaporising tens of thousands of people and animals, melting buildings and streetcars, reducing a 400-year-old city to dust.

Housewives and children were incinerated instantly or paralysed in their daily routines like the victims of Pompeii, their internal organs boiled and their bones charred into brittle charcoal. All 30 people inside the industrial promotion hall, about 160m north-west of the explosion’s hypocentre, were killed instantly and the building was gutted by fire. Yet many of the walls remained upright and the copper skeleton of the dome remained intact as 48 000 buildings in the city were flattened.

For Tanabe, Hiroshima is not an image or event but home, a core of identity where his mother and baby brother perished. For decades he could not bring himself to return to the industrial promotion hall, which has been renamed the A-bomb Dome and granted United Nations World Heritage status. It perches on the corner of a memorial peace park in the shadow of skyscrapers and that most American of landmarks, a baseball stadium.

Recently, however, he has been able to confront that apocalyptic morning. On occasion now, amid the crowds of tourists and children peering over the iron fence at the stark, sculptural qualities of the A-bomb Dome rising above piles of rubble, there is the face of Tanabe, lost in thought and blinking back tears.

”Usually Hell is something people only see,” he said. ”But I touched and smelled Hell. And I will take it to Heaven with me.”

On 6 August 1945, he was at his grandparents’ home, 40km west of the city. Two days later he returned to find his home wiped off the map and his mother, Yaeko, who was 32, and one-year-old brother, Kohro, dead. ”I don’t want to speak about it because it still hurts and makes me feel sick. I have never told my own family about it.”

His father, Fumio (38) then an elite officer in the imperial army, had been on horseback at Hiroshima’s military headquarters and was critically wounded. The young Masaaki went back to his grandparents. ”My father came there but he was not like my father. He was all bloody and so was his uniform. He used his sword as a walking stick. He lay on a mattress and at times he was so feeble because most of his blood had gone.

”When he heard the emperor’s voice on the radio on 15 August, the man who looked on the brink of death suddenly woke and sat up. Listening to the news that Japan had surrendered, he said: ‘There is no way for a soldier to live,’ and he collapsed and died. Maybe something supporting him inside expired, all hope gone. But I think largest of all was the loss of his beloved wife and child.”

His voice trembling, Tanabe added: ”I thought I should retaliate and get up and fight by myself against the Americans and British. How, I had no idea. We used to have only bamboo shoots to fight the enemy. But as I grew up I wanted to become a cinematographer because of films from Western cinema, so I was contradicting myself. The country I wanted to retaliate against is also the country I longed for. Although my hatred was not as serious as before, when my daughter wanted to marry an American I was still very shocked. There are 200 photos of the wedding and in not one of them is there a smile on my face.”

Until his 60th birthday Tanabe avoided the A-bomb issue, but when he pursued his ambition to become a filmmaker he finally confronted it, and has since used computers to create vivid depictions of the pre-war city. He is also collaborating with Hollywood on a blockbuster movie about the event.

”Hiroshima was much more beautiful in 1945 than it is today. There were warm conversations between people. I still dream of the good old town [and of] my parents. I want to see them. I miss them.”

Today Hiroshima is a thriving city with a population of 1,1-million and plenty of entertainment, carefree cyclists and Starbucks. But the A-bomb, which by the end of 1945 was estimated to have killed 140 000 people here, defines it. At the city’s heart is the memorial peace park and museum, in which school pupils look at exhibits left behind by dead children: school uniforms ragged and scorched, a lunchbox of carbonised food, a doomed three-year-old’s tricycle, a pocket watch stopped at 8.15am. They look at photographs of a woman’s skin branded by the pattern of her kimono. They gather around a glass case containing the cut-away steps of the local Sumitomo bank; whoever was sitting on those steps became a smudge.

There are 81 649 A-bomb survivors — or hibakusha — living in the city. Some, including ”forgotten survivors” from Korea, are still challenging the Japanese government for financial support. Some have become eloquent international peace campaigners, demanding adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and expressing deep fears for an unstable world, post-11 September. Many have lived with the legacy of the powerful radiation and gamma rays triggered by the A-bomb, which poisoned the large ashen drops of ”black rain” drunk by thousands of thirsty survivors.

Dozens of babies who had been in their mothers’ wombs when the bomb exploded were born with microcephaly — abnormally small heads. From around 1950, cases of leukaemia in Hiroshima soared, and from around 1955 thyroid, breast, lung and other cancers increased. Fears persist that the problem will pass down generations.

From early 1946, in more than half of those exposed to direct heat rays up to two kilometres from the hypocentre, the skin of burn scars that were thought to have healed began to swell, the skin puckering and thickening into keloids. These obscene growths caused marriages to be cancelled, discrimination in the job market and suicides. The hibakusha became pariahs in their own land.

Michiko Yamaoka (75) who was 800m from the hypocentre, said: ”At first I didn’t realise what had happened to me because I was lying down, but months later I looked into a mirror and saw how changed my face was. Then I often thought about committing suicide. My mother broke all the mirrors where we lived so I could not see myself any more. I had a fiance but he left me after he saw the keloids all over my face.”

Yamaoka was among 25 ”Hiroshima Maidens” invited to live in the United States and undergo plastic surgery, prompting a New York tabloid to boast: ”America can drop the biggest bomb, but it can also make the biggest, warmest gesture of goodwill.” She had 27 operations there. To her regret, she never married. Earlier this year she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

The bullet train journey from Hiroshima to Nagasaki is a rare luxury by British standards, with its polished wooden floors, politely bowing ticket inspectors and blurring speed. The traveller might glance out at the Kokura stop, however, and ponder the city beyond. On 9 August 1945, Kokura was earmarked as the original target for the second atom bomb to be dropped but it was obscured by cloud and smoke from earlier firebombs. After circling the city three times, with bomb doors open, the B-29 bomber Bockscar gave up and flew to its reserve target, Nagasaki.

Here was a city of culture: temples, shrines and 19th-century houses overlooking a deep harbour, the city which inspired Madame Butterfly and is known as the ”Naples of the Orient”, on the western edge of the Japanese archipelago. The A-bomb exploded at 11.02am, killing 74 000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly in a traditionally Catholic area. The Urakami Cathedral, which had taken three decades to build, was flattened in three seconds. A replica of this bomb, nicknamed ”Fat Man”, in the city’s museum shows a plutonium core no bigger than a human fist.

Katsuji Yoshida, who still lives in Nagasaki, was 13 in 1945. ”There was a big bang and I was thrown 40m into a rice field,” he recalled. ”The skin on my arms had peeled off and was hanging down like a torn shirt from my fingertips. We had mud from the paddy all over us, and we pressed leaves on our exposed flesh to make up for missing skin. My right ear was blown off. Two of my ribs were broken and they’ve never mended, even 60 years later.

”A group of women came down from the fields, screaming, to an area where wooden houses were burning in a huge fire. All those dead and wounded people. Arms and legs cut off. Stomachs split open and intestines hanging out. Heads split open and brains hanging out. Eyes had popped out and I could see the blood vessels still pulsing. I have never seen such a brutal thing. Adults put their heads into the river and never came back up — they died just like that. People in the mountains were hit by black rain and for years they came down with diarrhoea. This is what the atom bomb is: even when you think the worst is over, it comes back to haunt you.”

Sumiteru Taniguchi, who was then 16, suffered such severe burns to his back that he had to lie on his chest for 21 months. He said: ”I felt so much pain that every day I asked the doctors, ‘Please kill me.’ I was only skin and bone and many times I was in a very serious condition, barely breathing.

”All of the nurses thought I could not live any longer. But the next year I was given some experimental medicine and after four months my blood became normal and my injuries began to heal. I had 17 graft operations; usually they take skin from one place, but for me they took from two. Even now my injuries have not completely healed and I can only lie on my back for 10 minutes or so. I can go swimming but I wear a towel when I’m on the shore.”

Of all the A-bomb memories, tens of thousands of which are stored in both museums as a collective exhortation against a third nuclear strike, few are as harrowing as that of Sakue Shimohira, from Nagasaki. By August 1945 her father, Tomosaku, a soldier, had already been abducted and executed, and her 20-year-old brother had been killed in battle. ”Fat Man” would cause the deaths of her mother, brother and sisters too, as well as 1 400 of her fellow pupils at their primary school. ‘There was an air raid warning,’ said Shimohira, now 70. ”We went into the shelter but the warning was lifted. My brother, Masuichi, told me that in Hiroshima there had been a bombing after the warning, so I stayed in the shelter. He went to school as usual and, although he didn’t have any external injuries, he died three days later, vomiting and crying, ‘I don’t want to die’. He was 16.

”I remember the flash of light. Then a blast of wind came into the shelter and I was blown on to some rocks. I lost consciousness then somebody called, ‘Are you all right?’ I was shocked to see people with eyeballs hanging out, faces black, some with flesh hanging off. Some had internal organs coming out of their abdomen. They were holding their arms out asking for water. I heard people saying, ‘Help me! Help me!’ but I couldn’t do anything because I was so frightened, shaking with fear.

”Somebody was saying, ‘Kill me! Kill me!’ Those voices faded out, which meant they had died. The floor was full of dead bodies and they smelt so bad we just kept vomiting.

”I went to my eight-year-old sister, and she had lost consciousness so I hit her head to wake her up. I couldn’t see myself but I saw my sister had hair like needles. We called, ‘Mother! Mother!’ but nobody came. My one-year-old nephew was groaning from under a mattress of rice stems and we got him out.

”Late at night my stepfather, who was in the army in the next city, took us out of the shelter. We knew it was already night but it was lit by the flames of the fire. We saw the charred bodies of my friends and there was a woman holding a charred child to her bosom. She called me but I couldn’t reply because I knew she was my next-door neighbour. She was crawling and something had cut her throat across. All her body was black except that part of her throat, which was red with blood.”

Yet for the 10-year-old girl, the worst horror was to come. ”I saw part of a broken gate in the debris and I knew it was my house. I called, ‘Mother, sister,’ and pulled off the debris — I can’t forget the heat of it. I found a charred body under it. It was covering its eyes and ears with its hands. I took out the black hand and there was a little part not damaged, so I knew it was my elder sister, Satako. She was 22.

”I cried, ‘Nechan!’, meaning elder sister. I looked for my mother, crying, ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ and found two corpses. On one dead body the eyes were hollowed out but the teeth had gold fillings, so I knew it was my mother. My mother and the mother of my future husband were lying together.”

Shimohira and her sister had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. ”A week later I suffered bleeding from the nose and purple spots appeared on my face. Later on I had problems in my womb and my ovaries had to be removed. My sister, Ryoko, became sick with an appendix problem. She couldn’t go to hospital so it smelt badly and was going rotten. People thought it was a disease. She was 18 and a high-school student so she was too young to marry and all her friends left her. She lost hope. She committed suicide on the railway line.”

Even Shimohira loses her composure for a moment, and her eyes mist over when she tells the next part of her story: ”A few days after my sister’s death I also felt like killing myself. I stood by the railway line and could hear the choo-choo-choo of the train. I was so frightened that I jumped off the line. Again I waited for another train but I was so frightened I jumped off. Now I think it was a good choice not to kill myself.”

She married and had three children and eight grandchildren. But her husband, Nawei (76) suffered thyroid cancer because of the A-bomb, and their twin children, Toshiko and Yuko (49) also have thyroid problems, which they believe are linked to it.

The date 9 August will always be with her: ”I still have dreams about that day. Sometimes I am woken by my own voice crying, ‘Help!’ I can still see the images, a woman falling down on me. ‘Help me!’ Her shoes are hanging and melted. I still revisit the scene.”

Back in Hiroshima, Tanabe continues to revisit the scene of the devastation, where preparations are under way for peace ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary. For him remembrance means seeing the closest thing he has to a sacred place: the A-bomb Dome.

”If I could excavate the spot two metres beneath the surface I’m sure I could find the skeletons of my mother and brother,” he said. ”But now I think it may be good for them to sleep there for ever because so many people come to pray at the site. Once or twice a year I get permission from the city to go inside with a bouquet of flowers.

”When I was young I didn’t want to glimpse the A-bomb Dome; I wanted it destroyed as quickly as possible. But 60 years have passed and now I often go to the area and have a feeling of longing and nostalgia at seeing the structure. It is like seeing someone who shared all the hardships over 60 years.

”I’m afraid it will be destroyed if there is an earthquake. If we lose the Dome there will be no symbol in Hiroshima any more. It’s not just a concrete structure for me. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror.” And with that Masaaki Tanabe of Hiroshima, descendant of a samurai warrior, begins to weep like a child for the past.

The bombs that shook the world


  • The bomb named ”Little Boy” was dropped by the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29, at 8.15am on 6 August 1945.

  • It was three metres long and weighed four tonnes.

  • Element: uranium 235.

  • The bomb exploded 580 metres above the city.

  • The air temperature on detonation exceeded one-million degrees Celsius.

  • The energy released by the bomb was equal to about 15 000 tonnes of TNT.

  • About 140 000 of Hiroshima’s 350 000 people were estimated to have died by the end of 1945.

  • The city was almost completely destroyed.


  • The bomb — named ”Fat Man” for its round, tubby shape, apparently after Winston Churchill — was dropped at 11.02am on 9 August 1945 by the B-29 bomber, Bockscar.

  • It was 3,2 m long and weighed 4,5 tonnes

  • Element: plutonium 239

  • It exploded about 470m above the ground.

  • Destructive energy: equal to 21 000 tonnes of TNT.

  • About 74 000 people died by the end of 1945.

  • Eighty per cent of homes within two kilometres of the hypocentre were wrecked. – Guardian Unlimited Â
  • We make it make sense

    If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

    Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

    Related stories


    Already a subscriber? Sign in here


    Latest stories

    ‘Justice for Marikana will only be served if we see...

    The mineworker union’s Joseph Mathunjwa spoke at the ten-year anniversary of the massacre

    US conduct regarding Taiwan evinces a dangerous and ignorant strain...

    It underestimates the role of face-saving, which is central to Chinese culture, and the country’s priorities, such as attaining the Chinese Dream

    Eskom: Stage two load-shedding tonight

    Continued blackouts highly likely on Wednesday and Thursday, the energy entity added

    MPs dismiss Mkhwebane’s call to subpoena Ramaphosa

    The president’s evidence is not necessary to determine whether she is guilty of misconduct, the section 194 committee concludes

    press releases

    Loading latest Press Releases…