Looking under the carpet
Remembering Hiroshima so that we do not let it happen to us
December 14, 2001
The following is a term project I did for my senior-year writing seminar
class, Hiroshima. The class opened my eyes to the darkest secrets of humanity
and confirmed the idea that history is truly written by the conqueror. In
light of the recent events that have taken place in the world, I felt it
intrinsic to bring our focus back to what is truly important.
The entire world witnessed the events of September 11th, and will
never forget. However, it baffles me why the suffering of one group of people
should be remembered while that of another group forgotten. At this time
when the US has been the victim of a cruel foreign attack, it is important
to remember when it was the attacker.
My goal by releasing this article is not to make a comparison or to
pass judgment but rather to remind us that human life is precious and should
be valued equally all over the world. The loss of an American, Afghan, Palestinian,
Israeli or Japanese life is a loss for humanity and one we should be careful
about causing. I believe if we look into the past we can find lessons to
be learned from horrifying events like Hiroshima. Perhaps only then can
we prevent another attack like that of September 11th or perhaps even worse.
In the journey of education there are many landmarks of great significance.
The world's first use of the atomic bomb on a human population is perhaps
one of the most significant and overlooked of these landmarks. The atomic
bomb not only killed and poisoned thousands of Japanese, but it also introduced
a new threat and force for the entire world, forever changing its dynamics.
It ultimately set humanity on a new age of nuclear warfare, something never
before conceived of. Then why is it that so many people know so little about
More personally stated; how is it that a 23-year old history major almost
graduates from her university without ever having to contemplate this event
and its global impact? Most importantly, once that student stumbles on this
topic, whom, among the few expert voices, does she entrust to fill in that
embarrassing void for her? Who is qualified to deliberate on Hiroshima/Nagasaki?
How does that one person's deliberations influence the significance of atomic
threat to future generations?
These questions are at the heart of my search for the true voice of the
atomic experience. In my search I have focused on two schools of thought;
the scientific and the humanist. The focus of my research is a book titled
In Life by Robert Jay Lifton, representing the scientist's point of
view. In my extensive study of his work, I search to understand his motivation,
his technique and ultimately his message. His findings, I then measure against
the humanists, who are represented by many survivors, writers, poets and
Among the humanists, the voices are many, however they too carry a message.
By examining these two schools of thought and approach, I seek to find balance.
My ultimate reason for embarking on this project is to uncover one question;
which of these two approaches reveals to us the true message of Hiroshima?
Robert Jay Lifton was born on May 16th, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. His
father was a businessman and his mother a housewife. He completed his undergraduate
studies at Cornell University in 1944. He then continued on to New York
Medical College, where he got his M.D. in 1948. In 1951, shortly after completing
medical school, Lifton began his 2-year service in the US Air Force where
he became a captain.
During his time of service, he married a writer by the name of Betty
Jean Kirschner, with whom he had three children. His career began shortly
after leaving the service. In 1954-1955 he was a faculty member at the Washington
School of Psychiatry in Washington DC and Hong Kong. In 1956 he began a
five-year position of research associate in psychiatry at Harvard University
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was during these years that he developed
and interest in nuclear weapons and psychological issues surrounding them.
In 1961 he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he took on the position
of associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University. During his early
years at Yale he wrote Death
In Life. His career since the book has led him to lectures at many distinguished
universities, more successful books and numerous awards. Dr. Lifton is clearly
an expert in his field of psychiatry and especially in the discipline of
psychohistory, which he has helped to develop.
Psycho-historical process according to Dr. Lifton, is the "interplay
between individual psychology and historical change." New York Times
contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt defines it as: "An endeavor to
define how individual human behavior interacts with the historical currents
of a given age."
This preliminary interest led him to visit Hiroshima in April of 1962.
Lifton only intended to stay a few days. However, his plans changed once
he discovered "nobody had studied the general human effects of the
atomic bomb, the psychological and social effects." He decided to get
in touch with his colleagues at Yale and arrange funds for a six-month stay
in Japan to complete his research. Another factor that influenced his research
was his disapproval of prior studies that had been carried out.
Lifton's criticism of those studies reveals the standards he then sets
for his own study. The first rule is eliminating personal or emotional reactions
from influencing the study. "One effect the atomic bombings had upon
the Japanese, I soon discovered, was to create an intensity of feeling which
could interfere with evaluating their human impact".
According to Dr. Lifton, those who had intense feelings in regards to
the bombings had impaired judgment of its human impact. In the introduction
to his book, he describes how he, himself, managed the emotions he felt
in response to his interviews with atomic bomb victims. He admits that he
too at first was overwhelmed by the horrific accounts of the bomb:
I was confronted with the brutal details of actual experiences of human
beings who sat before me. Despite considerable previous research experience
was not prepared for the things I heard. I found that the completion of
each of these early interviews left me profoundly shocked and emotionally
Lifton saw this emotional immersion not as a positive step but rather
as a challenge, to understanding the atomic experience. So, in order to
remedy this problem, he develops one of the symptoms, he later on describes
in great detail called "psychic closing-off". The effects of this
psychic closing-off occurred quickly and successfully for Dr. Lifton:
But very soon-within a few days, in fact-I noticed that my reactions
were changing. I was listening to the same horrors, but their effect upon
Lifton goes on to describe how he believes that the distance he placed
between himself and the victims was necessary and key to a successful investigation
into Hiroshima. This concept is one that we will reencounter under very
different interpretation later on in the paper when the humanistic approach
The next standard we see Lifton give great importance to, is the manner
in which his research is conducted. As we shall see he carries out his research
very much like a scientific experiment. This is evident in the layout of
the book as well as in the language he uses. He refers to all information,
including his own reactions, as "data" and to the interviewees
as "research subjects". The use of this scientific lingo helps
to set, from very early on in the book, a detached and clinical tone.
Although Dr. Lifton views himself as a very sensitive researcher, his
readers are more likely to view him as a distant scientist. He goes into
Hiroshima without a great deal of knowledge or experience but with a clear
objective. He has a basic theory, which he devotes six months to prove.
The essence of his data, is a series of interviews he conducts on two groups
of Hiroshima survivors.
Due to his lack of fluency in Japanese, he employs a native social worker
to serve as his translator. The interviews were all conducted systematically
and were timed. Each hibakusha was interviewed twice (with some exceptions)
during two-hour long tape recorded sessions. Although the interviews did
give the hibakusha room for some spontaneous expressions, it consisted
mainly of an answer-question session.
Dr. Lifton focused on three aspects of what he refers to as "the
problem". These are recollection of the original experience and exploration
of its meaning seventeen years later; residual concerns and fears of all
kinds, particularly those surrounding delayed radiation effects; and the
survivor's inner formulation, of his experience, his struggles with mastery
and with the overall hibakusha identity. These three dimensions are
the focus of Lifton's scientific research and therefore it is not surprising
that his findings are limited to answering only these issues.
The majority of Death
In Life is in fact dedicated to systematically justify the findings
of the six-month experiment. The results are presented under five general
themes: "The death imprint, death guilt, psychic numbing, nurturance
and contagion, and formulation." In explaining his findings, Dr. Lifton
follows a technique that the reader quickly becomes accustomed to.
First the problem is identified or labeled, and then the symptoms are
described. Finally supporting testimony from the research subjects is presented
in small excerpts sufficient to back up the original diagnosis. The first
theme to undergo this analysis is that of the death imprint,. Under this
theme, Lifton examines the survivors, initial reactions to the dropping
of the atomic bomb as well as those memories that continue to haunt them
years after the fact.
In this section, two points are emphasized: the unusual grotesqueness
of the experience, and how surviving the experience contributes to feelings
of invulnerability. The first point focuses on the unusual nature of the
atomic bomb. The manner in which it destroyed people helped to create an
almost surreal and frightening experience with death; something that few
non-survivors can relate to.
This unusual confrontation with unnatural death, according to Lifton,
creates a heightened invulnerability and strongly affects his view of his
surroundings. The confrontation that hibakusha feel they have had
with death and how that affects their self-image is the focus of the second
point in death imprint. Here, in his attempt to enlighten the reader on
what he himself has not come close to experiencing, Dr. Lifton arrives at
a bold conclusion. He begins by explaining that:
... the survivor can retain an opposite image of having met death and
conquered it, a sense of reinforced invulnerability. He may feel
himself to be one of those rare beings that have crossed over to the other
side, and come back-one who has lived out the universal psychic theme of
death and rebirth.
By this statement Lifton means that those Japanese who managed to survive
the atomic bomb feel like they, in essence, experienced and then escaped
death and therefore are now above it. He interprets their amazement at the
fact that they actually survived, as cockiness. He uses the involvement
of atomic-bomb leaders in peace movements to support his theory. Dr. Lifton
believes that these leaders and their followers are assuming "the aura
of a spiritual elite who have known, death, and then returned to teach others
the secret of mastering it".
He clearly mocks the message of atomic-bomb leaders and survivors by
dismissing them as delusional victims who have entered "the myth of
the hero". In other words, the survivors feel special because they
have survived when so many thousands did not and therefore they feel like
they are heroes with a special message for the world. By this reference
to heroism,, the author clearly undermines the survivor experience and ridicules
the survivors' greatest accomplishments. Finding the strength to live and
attempting to draw meaning from a total tragedy are not concepts that the
Doctor is particularly concerned with.
The next theme is that of death guilt. In this rather brief section,
the focus is placed on the two concepts of comparative death timing and
the homeless dead. In this section, Lifton successfully dehumanizes
grief. The first concept he tackles is where he draws a separation for when
the survivor is acceptant of his/her loss versus when he/she feels guilty
for having survived. How can we tell?
According to Lifton it is all a matter of order. During the bombing,
if a child loses their parent, they might not suffer as much because it
is natural for the parent to go first. However, if a parent loses their
child then they will suffer from death guilt because it changes the order
that nature intended. In other words, age at the time of the bombings and
the order of expected death are the appropriate factors in calculating grief.
In this explanation, as a reader I would not have been surprised if Dr.
Lifton would have provided a mathematical equation for the calculation of
pain and guilt. The theory of the homeless dead, on the other hand, is Lifton's
attempt at displaying the amount of cultural awareness he has gathered in
his six months. He tries to explain how important it is in the Japanese
culture, comparing it to primitive cultures, to provide peace for the dead.
One way that the dead can be disturbed from that peace and therefore
wander like the homeless, is if they have not received the proper death
rituals. Therefore, those survivors who lost family members and were unable
to give them the proper final rituals feel guilty for their loved ones,
post mortem unrest. Lifton concludes by adding that the survivors also fear
and resent their dead, which just intensifies guilt even more.
The third theme in Lifton's findings is that of psychic numbing or "disaster
syndrome". The very first line of the section explains the disease
best: "The survivor's major defense against death anxiety and death
guilt is the cessation of feeling." We are introduced to this section
with a series of terminology to explain this phenomenon. Psychic numbing,
we discover, is the chronic form, while psychic closing-off is the acute
form of what Lifton characterizes as the "entire life style of the
survivor". Therefore, if we are careful about putting the pieces together,
we can conclude that the entire life style of survivors consists of cessation
The evidence he uses to back up his claims are sections of his survivor
interviews where they express their initial shock towards their environment
after the bomb was dropped. Some survivors expressed this shock as an outer
body experience, which Lifton translates into numbness. A few pages into
this section, we suddenly find ourselves amidst what seems to be a medical
dictionary. Lifton's vocabulary shifts to "The epitome of the neurasthenic
survivor syndrome", "somatization", and "sexual etiology".
He continues to dig deeper into his theories of psychoanalysis by incorporating
Freudian theories with his own, including schizophrenia. The result of pages
of confusing psychiatric analysis is that the atomic-bomb survivors were
unable to deal with what happened to them. They only allowed themselves
to absorb enough of the experience to survive it but not enough to absorb
the full impact of it since that would send them into a world of even more
serious mental disorders.
The actions of those survivors who carried and cremated the dead or helped
the injured is explained as only possible due to their numbness to the realities
of their situation. In fact the reason why any of these survivors have been
able to survive, according to Lifton, is because they have desensitized
themselves in some form from what happened on August 6th, 1945.
Nurturance and contagion is a section that deals with how the survivor
views him/herself within interpersonal relationships and also the view that
he/she has towards outsiders to the atomic experience. The theory regarding
interpersonal relations or nurturance is the first one tackled. It is in
this section that Lifton incorporates paranoia as the latest in the long
list of psychological problems for the survivors.
He explains this paranoia in stages. In the first stage we must understand
the formation of the survivors' identity. He describes it as: "a group
tie built around common victimization by a deadly force". If we understand
the identity of the survivors as victims then we have to agree that they
not only feel sorry for themselves but they also keep some suspicious distance
from those who are not like them. The survivor is therefore paranoid of
being tricked or receiving counterfeit nurturance.
This suspicion or paranoia, is key to understanding Lifton's arguments.
His suspicion of counterfeit nurturance can cause him to feel abused by
everyone, particularly by those most directly involved in helping him. Hence
the tendency for survivors of disasters of all kinds to become at some point
resentful toward doctors and rescue teams.
Lifton continues his argument of survivor paranoia to include the feeling
of distrust and "guinea pig" experimentation that the survivors
felt towards the American medical researchers that came to Hiroshima after
Japan's surrender. According to Lifton, the distrust felt towards these
doctors is a result of the survivor's psychological problems. What he does
not consider, however, is that the doctors were not only Americans and therefore
citizens of the very country that dropped the bomb but also provided no
relief to the survivors. Although the survivors were examined without receiving
medical care, their feelings about being used as guinea pigs is a sign of
their mental problems according to Lifton.
The rest of this section is dedicated to contagion,, which is the feeling
that they have been tainted with death from their exposure to radiation.
Lifton talks about contagion fear, both among hibakusha and from
non-hibakusha. The clearest example that he provides is in instances
of marriage where there tends to be a preference among hibakusha
to marry non-hibakusha. This, as he explains, is due to fear of contagion
of this invisible death taint.
People who have been exposed to the bomb are paranoid of developing some
form of radiation sickness or cancer and would therefore like to better
their chances both physically and emotionally by marrying non-survivors.
Physically; because of the desire to have healthy children, and emotionally;
because by not associating with another survivor, the hibakusha can
pretend that he/she isn't one either. He describes how the survivor is "torn
by conflicting needs to merge with the survivor in total compassion, and
to flee from him in a confused state of guilt and resentment."
The final theme in Lifton's findings is that of formulation. Formulation
has to do with how the survivor processes his/her experience. This process
can go in two directions. The impaired formulation is when the survivor
develops an "embittered world-view". In this case, the survivor
develops a lack of trust and hatred for the outside world, which he cannot
Secretly, in this case, the survivor wishes that the rest of the world
could also experience an atomic bomb, so that they would finally understand
the pain and bitterness associated with it. The other aspect of formulation
is the significance of deriving a purpose or message from their experiences.
Here, once again, Lifton devalues the very essence of what many survivors
have dedicated their lives to.
The many active atomic-bomb survivors who have spent their lives fighting
against nuclear weapons and for peace are dismissed and ridiculed under
the umbrella of formulation. "We can look upon the hibakusha
stress upon the general theme of peace, so prominent in their struggles
with their overall experience, as an effort to achieve wisdom and transcend
Among all of Dr. Lifton's evaluations and analysis, this is without a
doubt the most significant and humiliating of them all. Not only does it
minimize the call for peace but also, it highlights revenge as the driving
force for the struggle of the many survivors. This is a bigger blow than
all the mental disorders that the Doctor has assigned to the survivors because
this final comment attacks the foundation of their painful experience and
the integrity of their struggle.
The nearly 600 pages of Death
In Life remain to be the only ones entirely dedicated to the psychological
effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima survivors. Over thirty years have
passed since Lifton first ventured into this topic as its first researcher.
What could possibly be the reason why no one followed in his path?
There are two plausible answers to this question. First, we could consider
the success of Lifton's book in the scientific world as a deterrent for
other investigators to challenge his results. Death
In Life was after all, the recipient of the National Book Award in 1969
in Science. Perhaps the research that he conducted within those short six
months was so extensive and complete that no possible survivor neurosis
was left unnamed for future psychologists to uncover.
When Lifton went into Hiroshima, seventeen years after the bomb, he found
a psychoanalytically untouched territory. At the end of his six months there,
he had managed to identify, label, test and categorize all the left over
emotions into neat psychological disorders all under the general title of
A-Bomb Neurosis. Upon returning to the United States, Lifton received numerous
awards and praise for his research.
Along with the praise came some criticism, which continues to follow
him today. These criticisms are the basis for the second possible answer
to why his work did not inspire similar research from others in his field.
They draw attention to Dr. Lifton's incapability to evaluate the human significance
of a tragedy of such great magnitude. His critics successfully demonstrate
that by dehumanizing the Hiroshima experience, Dr. Lifton set a clear precedence
of insensitivity and inability to relate which no one has attempted to top.
One of the first criticisms of in 1969 came from Paul Goodman in the
March 28, 1968 issue of The New York Review. In this review of Lifton,
Goodman is very bold and passionate in voicing his criticism, reflecting
the offensive nature of the book. "The survivors of Hiroshima, Dr.
Lifton has shown us, are certainly fucked up, but they are not so fucked
up as Dr. Lifton. After all, it is rather much to drop an atom bomb
on people and then to come and ask them how they feel about it."
This statement, although racy, is an amazingly refreshing breath of simple
reality. After writing the many pages of in-depth psychoanalysis, Lifton
missed the obvious. Perhaps what ought to be under analysis should be his
research. Goodman makes several other important points that are key to examining
In response to Dr. Lifton's theories of guilt and self-hate, Goodman
says: "The shock of these people was far more intellectual, more surprised,
astonished, crazy, dirempted from reality, than he (Lifton) allows. There
is remarkably little hate or anger expressed, as I cannot buy the heavy
emphasis on self-hatred and guilt; there is almost no suicide."
When we look at Lifton's frequent use of guilt as the root of all survivors,
emotions, we never find him explaining why the suicide rate among the survivors
is so low. After all, any group of people who suffer from as many mental
disorders as the Hiroshima survivors do, according to Lifton, should be
drawn to suicide. The other important point that Goodman makes is in regards
to the many references he makes to paranoia among the survivors.
In the section dedicated to "counterfeit nurture", the book
examines at great length, how the survivors of Hiroshima were untrusting
of foreigners, especially Americans, and how they felt used by them like
guinea pigs,. According to Lifton, the hibakusha's negative reaction
towards the Americans was just over-reaction in a rage of paranoia towards
those who were merely trying to help them. In his review, Goodman offers
an opposing interpretation:
But did the people over-react? In reality, the ABCC was set up
as it was set up, not according to Dr. Lifton's fantasy. In reality, we
have proceeded to magnify and stockpile enough bombs to wipe out the world,
and the present funding for scientific research in this country is overwhelmingly
for weapons of destruction. We do treat the various gooks and niggers of
the world like things. Obviously the crazy people are more in touch with
the reality than the doctor is. Why does not Dr. Lifton protest and strike?
Indeed, why didn't the caring Doctor join in on the call for peace and
the protest against nuclear weapons and war? Instead, he chose to devalue
and dismiss the A-bomb leaders, cause as a result of feeling heroic, because
of their close contact with death and need to have a special message, for
Well, today, thirty-three years after he wrote that opinion, Dr. Lifton
finds himself on the same side as his patients,. He too, has joined the
protests and the call for an end to nuclear power. In an article, which
appeared in The New York Times (November 18, 2000), Lifton discusses
the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, which he co-founded in 1985. The center, under the guidance and
command of Dr. Lifton, organized a conference on the theme of nuclear threat
with the hopes of challenging: "the academic community, from administrators
to professors, to students, to take up this matter again."
From Lifton's comments in the article we can note that some parts of
his thinking have changed over the course of the past thirty-three years.
The most obvious change is his activity against nuclear weapons, which is
what he had been mocking the survivors for doing. The other significant
difference is his lack of enthusiasm regarding the field of psychohistory."
The word psychohistory has become a red flag; irresponsible work has
been done in its name. What I really mean by a psychohistorical approach
is using psychological methods for historical problems. I do direct interviews
with people-whether it be survivors of Hiroshima or Nazi doctors -- and
immerse myself in the immediate environment and history of whom I'm studying.
It appears here that Lifton has forgotten about the Japanese social worker
who translated for him during his interviews. He also has forgotten the
psychic numbing he admitted experiencing towards the survivors he interviewed
in order to be capable of listening to their horrific stories.
As far as the body of his arguments I agree with the statement made by
Theodore Postol, professor at MIT: "Dr. Lifton and those who subscribe
to his approach tended to ascribe psychological disorders to those whose
opinions differed from their own." I believe if Dr. Lifton would fairly
evaluate himself he would come to the conclusion that he was one of the
people who justifiably so gave psychohistory its bad name.
If the scientific approach, represented by Dr. Lifton's Death
In Life, does not truly represent the voice and message of Hiroshima,
then what does? Fortunately for those of us who do not see eye to eye with
Dr. Lifton, he is not the only one who has been writing about the atomic
bomb. The many writers, poets, novelists, and political activists have also
been trying to get their voices heard and their message acknowledged.
This group, which I've referred to under the category of humanists, is
not as fortunate as Dr. Lifton. Unlike him, they do not have access to a
"$400,000 grant from the Mac Arthur Foundation" to start their
own centers and hold their own conferences. Most of them have lived simple
lives and have carried on their efforts year after year under financial
and political pressure and with minimal recognition. Regardless of their
conditions, the humanists continue to write with the kind of conviction
Dr. Lifton can only dream of possessing. Who are they? Why do they write?
And what is their message?
The humanists are survivors and non-survivors, Japanese and foreigners
who have been affected by the human impact of Hiroshima and understand its
significance for the future of the world. They write about the atomic experience,
because they have no other choice. Many of these voices are those who have
witnessed the bomb and continue to relive it in their minds, souls and bodies.
Others have been affected by it enough to devote their lives in preventing
a possible reoccurrence.
Unlike Dr. Lifton, they cannot leave Hiroshima after six months because
no matter where they go, they carry it within themselves. They are the ones
who have a deep understanding of the bomb. Their message carries an urgency
that we cannot ignore. Although their works vary greatly in discipline and
style, they agree on the most important themes of the atomic bombings. Not
surprisingly, these themes are a far cry from Lifton's five categories.
They delve into three areas, which Lifton did not even consider to include
in his research findings. The three themes are Horror, Courage, and Dignity.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to not have been in Hiroshima
on August 6th, 1945, we have not experienced the force of an atomic bomb.
The only thing that can come close to giving us an idea of its destructive
nature is the accounts of those who had to witness and live through it.
Regardless of the method they use to express their memories of that unforgettable
morning, they successfully transmit the horror of the experience. The details
they give are so strong that they conjure up tears and nausea in the readers.
"Day Five: Hair comes out at the slightest touch. Maggots gather in
suppurating wounds; cleaned off, they drop in clumps to the floor, scatter,
and creep back into the pus."
While some people do not wish to be bothered by such strong and unpleasant
images, I find them crucial to any attempt at understanding Hiroshima. Toge
Sankichi is an atomic bomb poet and political activist who had the gift
for transmitting the horror of the experience. Sometimes this horror isn't
physical, but rather an intense feeling of sadness and panic. His poem "Little
One" does an unparalleled job at transmitting the emotional horror
of the bomb. In this poem we also see the poet's commitment to transmitting
the message of Hiroshima:
I'll search you out,
put my lips to your tender ear,
and tell you:
how the war that all over Japan cut daddies and mommies asunder
from small sons they loved,
with sinister force stretched them on the rack,
and finally swatted them dead
stabbed them to death,
drove them to mad death;
burned the sea, burned the islands,
burned the city of Hiroshima;
and how it snatched Daddy,
from your innocent gaze, your clinging hands.
I'll tell you the real story--
I swear I will.
The commitment to the message of Hiroshima is central to the next theme
in the humanist approach. Courage is taking a situation of utter destruction
and despair and turning it into a weapon for fighting the evil that threatens
to return. Ota Yoko's conversation with her half sister as they walk through
a street full of dead bodies proves that she possesses that courage.
"You're really looking at them-how can you? I can't stand and look
at corpses." Sister seemed to be criticizing me.
I replied: "I'm looking with two sets of eyes -- the eyes of a
human being and the eyes of a writer."
"Can you write about something like this?"
"Some day I'll have to. That's the responsibility of a writer who's
This idea of the survivor's responsibility to relay the experience is
unfound in Lifton's book. He does not have a great deal of respect for the
atomic-bomb leaders and dismisses them using more psychoanalysis. It is
up to us as readers to search for and appreciate the undeniable courage
it has taken for the humanists to write their stories. They have had to
jump over numerous emotional and physical hurdles to be heard and they deserve
every bit of our attention and respect.
Kenzaburo Oe makes a very important point in Hiroshima Notes concerning
the survivors right to silence and courage for speaking. He himself, like
Lifton, is not an A-bomb survivor. The difference between the two men is
that Oe understands and acknowledges the courage of the survivors.
People who continue to live in Hiroshima, instead of keeping silent or
forgetting about the extreme tragedy of human history, are trying to speak
about it, study it, and record it. It is a formidable task, calling for
extraordinary effort. Outsiders can hardly comprehend the scope and intensity
of the Hiroshima people's feelings-including the personal aversion to public
exposure, which they must conquer in order to carry out this task. The people
who stick by the city are the only ones with a right to forget it and keep
silent about it; but they are the very ones who choose to discuss, study,
and record it energetically.
I believe that the right to keep silent is an extremely important point
that Oe makes. According to Lifton if the hibakusha are unwilling
to express themselves it must be because they are in denial or they are
numb, to the experience. Oe, however by expressing the right to silence,
destroys Lifton's theory and gives the power back to the survivors. Oe's
most striking statement in regards to the survivors is in his description
of a "people who did not commit suicide in spite of everything".
This brief statement has pages and pages of meaning for me and for those
who are willing to contemplate the courage of the survivors.
The third and final focus in this group of humanistic ideas is that of
dignity. The people of Hiroshima exemplify dignity according to Oe; an opinion
that I fully support. The hibakusha have suffered the unimaginable,
yet they go on. Ota Yoko comments on this in City of Corpses : "Humanity
is astonishingly adaptable: even amid total devastation people find ways
to carry on".
The survivors have shown their humanity through their selfless acts of
outreach for the people in their community. The case of the doctors who
were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing is a clear example of this.
"A handful of doctors, some of them injured and all surrounded by a
city full of casualties, had the brute courage to care for over a hundred
thousand injured people with only oil and mercurochrome." These acts
are the acts of a dignified people possessing a humanity that is superior
in strength; even to atomic bombs.
A woman that personifies dignity is Kurihara Sadako. A speaker and activist
against nuclear weapons, Kurihara herself is a hibakusha. The themes
of horror, courage and dignity are not intangible ideas for her, but rather
form the roots of her poetry and essays. Having spent years fighting the
Japanese government and censorship, she is the modern voice of Hiroshima.
Her message represents the future of the resistance against nuclear weapons.
In one of her essays which was included in The Holocaust and Genocide
Studies, she speaks of the future and of the significance of the atomic
threat on the world:
Nuclear war is surprise war. There won't be even a news flash. Suddenly,
while people are still engrossed in the words of everyday, they will be
bathed in the blue flash, scorched by hot rays, and the unreal will become
real -- "The city is blown away, buildings collapse, and the rivers
fill with corpses." Coming one after the other, in a chain, atomic
bombs will lead to a total war. The hibakusha of Hiroshima/Nagasaki
are important both as survivors of 1945 and as people who foresee future
nuclear war and lodge an indictment on that score. The nuclear powers who
seek to immure Hiroshima/Nagasaki in past history reject the testimony
of the survivors about future nuclear war.
In this paragraph, Kurihara Sadako, manages to deliver a stronger message
than Lifton was able to develop in almost 600 pages of analysis.
Hiroshima is not a mere historical event that we can analyze and then
tuck away and forget about. Even Dr. Lifton has now realized its significance
to our future. So, after researching these two different schools of thought,
I can no longer claim total ignorance and I can now begin to answer the
questions posed at the beginning of my search.
Hiroshima/Nagasaki is an unpopular topic and is avoided at all costs
because studying it would be opening up the United States' guilty wounds.
Therefore an education received in the US will attempt to brush this important
piece of national shame under the carpet. I realize that I am among the
lucky few who were able to devote four months to studying this event. I
also realize that four months time is only sufficient as an introduction.
However, within these four months, I have had the opportunity to search
for the significance of the atomic-bomb experience and the message that
I did not find the answer in Lifton's book. I found the message of Hiroshima/Nagasaki
in the countless works of those dedicated to its human impact. While Lifton
categorizes and labels the survivors, the humanists attempt to understand
the larger picture. The efforts of the likes of Toge, Oe, Sadako, Yoko,
Tamiki, Hayachi and the many others are to transmit the experience so that
we do not let it happen to us. Contrary to Lifton's theories of numbness
and disconnection, the survivors felt and continue to feel a great deal.
For me, their message has been awakening. I am grateful that I have had
the opportunity to hear their voices, which I know have struggled to reach
Without these humanists, we are left with scientific explanations like
the ones Dr. Lifton offers which are self-serving and offer no solution
or guidance. He spent six months examining the survivors of Hiroshima so
that he could become the first to publish an analysis of their problems.
He did not care enough to try and help resolve any of the numerous disorders
that he identified. Instead he came home to collect his awards and forget
about what he saw in Japan.
But the amazing impact of Hiroshima's people was too strong even for
Dr. Lifton to escape from. His theories on psychic numbing, collapsed with
his own inability to forget the tragedy that he crossed through. The fact
that a distant scientist like Lifton is today fighting against nuclear weapons
is re-enforcement of the power of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. What a shame that
so few people get the opportunity to become exposed to it.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Death
In Life. New York, 1967.
Minear, Richard H. Hiroshima; Three Witnesses. Princeton, 1990.
Oe, Kenzaburo. Hiroshima Notes. Tokyo, 1981.
Sadako, Kurihara. "The Literature of Auschwitz and Hiroshima: Thoughts
on Reading Lawrence Langer's The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination."
In Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 7, Number 1, (Spring 1993): 88-89.
The New York Review March 28, 1968.