Hiroshima Summit—Starting point for abolition of nuclear weapons, Part 1: Not even bones remained

by Michiko Tanaka, Senior Staff Writer

August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, is the time the U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in what was the first nuclear attack in history. However, to what extent have we really come to terms with the tragedy of the people who experienced the bombing firsthand? While the risk of nuclear weapons use continues to escalate globally, less than 100 days remain until the summit meeting of the G7 (Group of Seven industrialized nations) is held for the first time in Hiroshima. We all want to remain conscious of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons as we welcome the leaders to the city, in what could become a starting point in the fight to abolish nuclear weapons.

Traces of family members’ lives vanished

Yoshihiko Yagi, 88, an A-bomb survivor who is a resident of Hiroshima’s Asaminami Ward, said, “Atomic bombs are the devil’s weapon.” Ever since that morning of the atomic bombing, Mr. Yagi has remained separated from five other members of his family, including his father and siblings. The remains of their bodies have never been found. “Everything, even the traces of their lives, vanished,” he said. Those who survived the catastrophe went through hell. When he stands in front of his family grave, he recalls himself at age 11 as an orphan desperately trying to survive.

At the time of the bombing, Mr. Yagi was a fifth-grade student at Hakushima National School (now Hakushima Elementary School, located in Hiroshima’s Naka Ward). His mother had already died, and his older brother, who was 11 years older, had been drafted into the military. Mr. Yagi was living in the area of Nishihakushima-cho as one of a family of eight, including his father, three older sisters, a younger sister and brother, as well as an uncle.

“Everyone in my family worked hard. We all lived a hectic but active daily life.” His father, then 52 and the owner of a noodle production business, operated a factory in what is now known as Hatchobori, in Hiroshima’s Naka Ward, and served food at an Army cafeteria. Mr. Yagi’s three older sisters were aged 25, 17, and 14 years old at the time. They took care of him in place of his deceased mother while assisting in their father’s business. Looking back, Mr. Yagi explained that, “I don’t have any memory of having ever fought with my sisters and brothers. I didn’t feel hunger either, maybe because of our family business.” Nevertheless, everything around him completely changed on August 6.

Lost his family in atomic bombing

Mr. Yagi experienced the atomic bombing at his school, 1.5 kilometers north of the hypocenter. When he crawled out from under the collapsed building, he saw severely burned children lying on the school grounds. He rushed home, located several hundred meters from the school. The house had been turned into rubble and, despite calling out the names of his family, nobody replied. As the fires that arose immediately after the bombing closed in, he had no choice but to go to a railway station and flee Hiroshima to the home of his grandmother, who lived in the suburbs.

On August 8, he returned to Hiroshima and set about searching for his family members on his own. On the site where their house once stood were only traces of noodle-production machines. He ran to a nearby relief station after being told that a boy with the appearance of his four-year-old younger brother was there. “Takeshi, are you here?” Despite calling out his brother’s name numerous times, there was no reply. He continued to walk around the city, sleeping outside at night, and ran into countless corpses, but he could find no clues about his family members’ whereabouts.

Five days after the atomic bombing, his younger sister, then seven, appeared at the grandmother’s home. His uncle, then 36, also arrived with severe burns. Mr. Yagi was happy for a while realizing he was no longer alone, and one by one other relatives evacuated to the grandmother’s home. As a result of all the people, three had to go borrow a room in a different house. Suddenly, the 11-year-old boy was forced to take care of the other two.

Looking for food, he would visit farmers’ houses with some clothes that had been removed from his home prior to the bombing. The farmers would take advantage of his weak position and traded only morsels of food in exchange for the clothes. The experience was miserable and frustrating. He would eat snakes, frogs, and even field grass. He never gave up hope thinking about the lives of the other members of his family. He persisted in his search for them, but sign of their remains was ever found. In October, finally, he submitted death notices for the missing. Suffering feelings of guilt, he handed in the documents while keeping his eyes closed.

In the fall of 1946, his older brother was discharged from the military and returned home. In 1947, Mr. Yagi was able to return to his studies at school thanks to his brother’s help, but they were forced to constantly struggle to make a living. Starting when he was a second-year junior high-school student, he started to make money by fixing bicycle tires and delivering coal. His family’s financial situation finally stabilized after he became accustomed to his work at a food wholesaler. By that time, nearly 10 years had passed since the end of the war.

He married in 1963 and lived a happy life. Nevertheless, the shadow of the atomic bombing never disappeared. His oldest daughter, who was born prematurely in spring of the following year, was healthy, but he and his wife lost the next two babies, who died as a six-month-old fetus and a four-month-old infant. His wife Yukie, 81, was in the area of Hakushima-cho on that day. She is an A-bomb survivor who lost her father and grandmother in the bombing. They always suspected that radiation might have caused the deaths of their babies and grew to resent the atomic bombing.

“Disarmament efforts are tepid”

In 1995, the 50th year after the atomic bombing, Mr. Yagi was finally able to engrave the names of the five missing family members on his family grave in Hakushima-cho. Around the same time, he began to share his A-bombing experience with others. Two years ago, his younger sister, who had lived with him since the end of the war, died. Mr. Yagi is now the only person who can speak about the lives of his family that existed until that day. “Disarmament efforts are tepid. Such weapons must be eliminated completely,” said Mr. Yagi. He made up his mind to continue conveying the reality of the atomic bombing as long as he lives.

(Originally published on February 10, 2023)