Reading: Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

9th August 2015

nagasaki*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 In her preface to Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard talks about living in Yokohama in high school as an international student. On a school trip, her class visited Nagasaki, and only there did she realize the lack of knowledge she had about this city’s role in World War II.

As I mentioned in my Pacific War reading post, I felt (and feel) the same way. Southard – and others who write on this topic – discuss that many people do not even realize that there was a second bombing. Hiroshima was the first, and for many, it dominated the news, leaving Nagasaki to suffer quietly.

Strangely, though, Nagasaki was subjected to the more powerful of the two bombs, a plutonium bomb. Just three days after the devastation of Hiroshima, when news of the extent of the destruction had not yet reached Tokyo, the U.S. flew by its original destination because of low visibility and headed to its next target, Nagasaki.

Though some survivors of Hiroshima arrived in Nagasaki and were able to warn family and friends to wear white and lay low, the majority of the city was immune to the air raid sirens, and no siren sounded prior to the bombing. The result was utter decimation of a city, its people, and its culture.

The hibakusha, “bomb-affected people,” survived against all odds. Those not initially killed suffered from flash burns, inhaled glass and other matter, and, what would soon come to be called, Disease X, or radiation disease.

As Pellegrino does, Southard illustrates the mayhem directly following the bombing, but she specifically tracks five hibakusha and their struggle to recover, both physically and mentally.

Japan was already hurting, and citizens of Nagasaki were hungry and malnourished. With little medicine and virtually no support, survivors depended on the doctors and others who worked, some ill themselves, to provide them with whatever care they could. Once Japan surrendered and MacArthur and his troops stepped in, the general’s censorship left the country with little to no knowledge of the effects of the atomic bombings. The spread of misinformation to the rest of the world and America’s unwillingness to treat hibakusha lest such an act look like an apology, further restricted the help available.

The unknown and terrifying effects of radiation disease made hibakusha pariahs, and many refused to leave home because the physical marks of the bombs made them easily identifiable. Later, some hibakusha were unable to obtain jobs and marriages because of their statuses, forcing many to live in silence.

Southard talks about the challenges in telling the stories of Taniguchi, Do-oh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Wada Koichi, and Yoshida Katsuji, acknowledging, as she says, “the inherent limitation and unreliability of memory, especially traumatic memory” and counters this through extensive research and fact checking. Photographic evidence and vivid scarring reinforce their stories, and these five travel often, speaking of their experiences and calling for an end to nuclear warfare.

Their remarkable stories and desire to speak globally for peace makes for a sobering, necessary book, yes, especially 70 years after the fact. Southard quotes Yoshida: “At first I hated Americans for what they did to me…I didn’t understand how any nation could use such a cruel weapon on human beings. But in my old age, I have learned that holding a grudge does nobody any good. I no longer hate Americans. I only hate war.”

Regardless of your own (hopefully) conflicted notions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War will certainly further develop a story many of us may have only seen as a mushroom cloud, illuminating those beneath it.

Add this to your Goodreads list.

  • This sounds heartbreaking and amazing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention as I’ve read little on Hiroshima or Nagasaki even though I have a sort of fascination (even though I sort of feel bad saying that).

    • I totally get it. But there’s nothing wrong with being interested in it. In fact, I’d argue that the survivors talked about in this book would be encouraged by that response. Too few of us, in my opinion, take the time to learn.

  • renee

    Also had no idea about Nagasaki. None. Adding this to my TBR pile. Thanks for the review.

    • Hey there! Was *just* thinking about you yesterday – that is so weird. Was recommending your book to a friend.

      And I hope you do get a chance to pick it up. It’s a remarkable piece of research/narrative.

      • renee

        That is wild! Funny how life works. Been enjoying the recent posts. Definitely going to read this one. Hugs. 🙂

  • New to me… interesting.