History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 11, Article 1)

A-bomb survivors in Okinawa

by Tetsuya Okahata, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

Among those engulfed by the fiery hell that raged under the atomic bomb, many had come to Hiroshima from lands across the sea. There were Japanese-Americans who arrived here, with no experience of their ancestral home before that time, to be educated in Japan. And there were people from Okinawa who had fled the battle zone of their island.

Even while feeling forced to act more Japanese than the Japanese people themselves, their existence was long neglected following the end of the war and they were unable to access support from the Japanese government. Currently, it is estimated that there are 800 to 1,000 A-bomb survivors living in North America, and about 350 survivors in Okinawa. In addition, other survivors are scattered in places as far away as South America. While facing prejudice towards A-bomb diseases in these locations, what thoughts were on the minds of such people as they looked back at Hiroshima?

The Chugoku Shimbun traced the lives of young Japanese-American women who lived caught between two countries, and were unable to speak out about their suffering wrought by the atomic bombing after being forced to serve in a secret army unit. And a mother and daughter in Okinawa who lived under the thumb of the U.S. military, and under the shadow of nuclear weapons, for 27 years.

Mother and daughter appeal against military bases

Oleander flowers
An island of military bases
Holds the dangers of nuclear weapons

This haiku appears in a collection of poems called “Tree of Life” that was published in 1994. The author is Sachiko Higa, 62, of Naha, Okinawa. By the poem are written these words of explanation: “I experienced the atomic bombing while a student at Hiroshima Jogakuin Girls’ High School. Last year I attended the Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima and mourned the spirits of friends that I lost.”

Oleanders were the first flowers to grow in Hiroshima’s nuclear desert. The shadows cast over the hearts of the A-bomb survivors living in Okinawa can be glimpsed in the poem’s contrast between this pretty pink flower and the threat of nuclear weapons. Moved by the emotion expressed in this haiku, I visited Ms. Higa in mid-March, as spring was arriving on the island.

Heavy rain was falling on the red petals of the flowering bougainvillea. Ms. Higa’s house stood in a residential area in Naha, close to Shuri Castle, the scene of heavy fighting during the Battle of Okinawa.

Ms. Higa showed me a piece of paper. “I was thought to be one of the missing,” she said. The paper is a copy of a handwritten register of the first-year students of Hiroshima Jogakuin Girls’ High School in 1945. In the aftermath of the blast, a teacher gathered the list of names and fates by asking the surviving students. In all, 129 students were killed in the bombing. Among the names that are followed by the word “deceased,” the space next to Ms. Higa’s name remains blank. Ms. Higa obtained the register two years ago when she attended the Peace Memorial Ceremony as a representative of victims’ families from Okinawa and paid a visit to her old school, the first time she had been back there in 48 years.

“I probably should have returned to school right after the bombing,” she said. “But I didn’t have the courage to go through the gates after what happened.” Ms. Higa managed to survive that day because she had come down with a high fever and was resting at home instead of working to dismantle buildings at a site in Naka Ward with her schoolmates. Most of these mobilized students were killed in the blast. A friend’s mother left a scar on Ms. Higa’s heart when she asked her: “Why were you the only one who survived?”

Ms. Higa and her family moved to Hiroshima, her father’s hometown, in 1944, a year before the Battle of Okinawa began. Her parents had been running a business in Naha, making panama hats, but closed it due to the war. The government was making near-forceful efforts so that island residents would evacuate to the mainland or Taiwan. However, with U.S. submarine attacks on cargo ships intensifying, the seas of Okinawa were turning into waters of tragedy. In one incident, which involved the sinking of the Japanese vessel Tsushima Maru, an estimated 1,500 civilians died, including almost 800 children.

After making the dangerous voyage, the family settled into a new life in Hiroshima. But at the end of that same year, the father, Tanekichi, fell ill and passed away. With two children, Masaki and Sachiko, to support, times became hard for the mother, Tsuru. With no opportunity to even mourn the death of her husband, Tsuru was forced to take a job at a factory which made airplane parts. This difficult life as a family of three was then rocked by the atomic bombing of August 6.

Tsuru was at the Minami Oohashi Bridge, about 2 kilometers from the hypocenter, when the blast occurred. She suffered burns to the left side of her body, and is unable to recall how she made it back to their home in the Yoshijima district. As soon as she was sure her children were safe, she fell unconscious and was ill for the next two months. When rain fell into the roofless house, they made do by opening umbrellas.

In October 1946 the family made the voyage back to Okinawa. They were hoping to live with Tsuru’s mother, but when they saw the destruction on the island from the old cargo ship that carried them, they were forced to assume that the grandmother had not survived the war.

Yet she was alive, still protecting the land handed down from her ancestors. The four reunited in the city of Ishikawa, where a large number of refugees were living in tents, and they embraced in relief. The family now learned of the deaths of many friends. Some of the children who had gone down with the Tsushima Maru were former classmates of Ms. Higa. She again felt the painful guilt of being a survivor.

They began their new life in a tent so small they couldn’t even stretch out their legs. Ms. Higa’s mother and grandmother started a general store. Ms. Higa worked, too, at a U.S. army camp. Although she was reluctant to work for the U.S. military, which had ravaged her homeland, survival was the main thing on her mind right then.

Tsuru, whose face was scarred from keloids, rarely ventured outside the house. Children in the neighborhood were frightened of her appearance and would not come near. In an environment where most families had lost relatives and friends to the Battle of Okinawa, little sympathy was shown for the A-bomb tragedy and there was ignorance and discrimination when it came to A-bomb illnesses. Tsuru had a hard time even looking in a mirror, but things changed for her when a U.S. F-100 fighter jet, flying from Kadena Air Base in 1959, crashed into Miyamori Elementary School.

The American plane was taking a test flight when it came down into the school building, killing or injuring about 130 children and others in the vicinity. The pilot parachuted from the plane before it crashed. Ms. Higa’s family was living right across the school then, and the incident shocked her mother. “She thought another atomic bomb had been dropped,” Ms. Higa said, startled by Tsuru’s fierce tone. “She said that the tragedy happened because of the U.S. military base here.” From that point on, Tsuru suffered flashbacks of the atomic bombing whenever she heard a loud noise, such as thunder.

Tsuru felt the growing desire to raise awareness of the A-bomb damage on an island that still resembled a battlefield. At the same time, there was nothing she could do, by herself, to counter U.S. military claims that “no A-bomb survivors were in Okinawa.” Then, in 1963, an article in the newspaper caught her eye. The Okinawa Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was searching for A-bomb survivors. Tsuru reached out to them.

With her keloid scars, which stubbornly remained even after she underwent plastic surgery, Ms. Higa’s mother became a symbol of the Okinawa Union of Atomic Bomb Victims (now, A-bomb Survivors’ Council). At a meeting of A-bomb survivors that year, she spoke about her experience of the bombing, as well as the anger felt by survivors in Okinawa for the 19 years they had been ignored since the war ended.

“I felt my mother had found a way of life that suited her,” Ms. Higa said. At the time, though, she was working as a union investigator for the Labor Department of the United States Civil Administration. This role put her on the side of suppressing “anti-American activities,” and included such tasks as gathering information about labor movements. As a result, mother and daughter were on opposite sides. But Ms. Higa refrained from speaking about these matters with her mother. “When I thought about her, the way she had lived as if in hiding... And I, too, am an A-bomb survivor.”

Twenty-three years have passed since the United States returned Okinawa to Japanese administration. Medical standards have risen, and support for A-bomb survivors is now at the same level as it is on the mainland. However, in spite of the appeals made by Ms. Higa’s mother, among many others, U.S. military bases still cover 20% of Okinawa’s main island. The reality that Okinawa remains a base for fighting war in the world, under the shadow of nuclear fears, has yet to change.

Tsuru has aged since Masaki’s death eight years ago. For Ms. Higa, her visit to Hiroshima was a defining moment. As she read the names of old classmates inscribed on the memorial at her school, faces that she had forgotten began to appear in memory. “My teacher told me that they died, one by one, in the middle of singing hymns,” she said. “I was shocked.” Her feelings of guilt turned to anger.

In January of this year, Ms. Higa attended the New Year’s party of the A-bomb Survivors’ Council. She and her mother danced there to the sound of Ryukyuu folk songs. As Ms. Higa danced, she looked at the faces of her mother’s peers. Like Tsuru, who is now 88, their faces are etched with age. “Soon there will be no one left to talk about their A-bomb experiences on this island, a place that still has nuclear bombs,” Ms. Higa thought. “What will come after that...” And so she made the decision to speak out about her own experience of the atomic bombing.

The rain pelting the window eased. “When survivors die, are their names added to the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims?” Ms. Higa asked me. As I nodded, she said, “I wonder if my classmates at Jogakuin will let me join them by adding my name to the Cenotaph. I need to do my best so they will forgive me.”

Support for survivors in Okinawa arrives ten years late

“There are no A-bomb survivors in Okinawa.” This was the claim maintained by the United States Civil Administration and the Ryukyuu government. In 1954, a man who showed the characteristic symptom of hair loss linked to A-bombed illness died on the island of Kumejima. In 1960, another man on the island died showing the same symptoms. The Ryukyuu government deployed a team to investigate, but the team lacked a suitable doctor and the investigation was called off without producing a clear-cut result.

The claim that no A-bomb survivors existed in Okinawa was disproved in 1963. The Okinawa Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs received an appeal from Tsuru Sakugawa, now deceased, who was a resident of Ishigaki City. At the time of the bombing, Ms. Sakugawa was a nurse at the Hiroshima Military Hospital. Osamu Ooshima, 65, who was the secretary general of the organization then and currently lives in Ishigaki City, recalled, “I was eating lunch at a soba restaurant and Ms. Sakugawa was there, too. I overheard her talking about ‘dizziness and anemia possibly related to the atomic bomb,’ so I spoke up. I had finally found a survivor of the bombing.”

Ultimately, 78 A-bomb survivors were located and Mr. Ooshima called on the Ryukyuu government to establish a support mechanism for survivors in Okinawa. The government, however, demanded more detailed data from his organization. Instead, on the pretense of sightseeing, Mr. Ooshima traveled to the mainland to share this information directly with the Japanese government.

“There was intense pressure from the U.S. military,” Mr. Ooshima recalled. “I would get threatening phone calls. My nephew was trying to get a government job at the time and they told me, ‘If you stop your investigation, we’ll give him a job.’” But Mr. Ooshima and his supporters persevered and, in 1964, the issue finally came to the attention of the Diet Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nineteen years after the atomic bombings, the survivors of Okinawa were finally acknowledged.

The Atomic Bomb Medical Relief Law was passed in 1957. However, it was not implemented in U.S.-controlled Okinawa. Because survivors were unable to benefit from this measure, they had difficulty obtaining needed medication, and this situation shortened the lives of many.

The Okinawa Union of Atomic Bomb Victims, established in 1964, set as its main aims: 1) the realization of examinations performed by medical specialists, 2) the application of the Atomic Bomb Medical Relief Law to A-bomb survivors in Okinawa to the same extent as applied to the mainland. The fact that the union was forced to pursue these aims, which were modest goals in the eyes of survivors on the mainland, suggests the urgency felt by A-bomb survivors in Okinawa, who had been abandoned by the Japanese government.

“I wasn’t even aware that such a law existed until our union was established,” recalled the first chairman of the organization, Shuichi Kinjo, who currently resides in Itoman City. “Because survivors are more frail than other people, they often live in poverty. Too many survivors were forced to sell their houses and valuable belongings to raise money for medical care.”

As a result of the survivors’ pleas, doctors from Hiroshima provided A-bomb check-ups in 1965 and the Atomic Bomb Survivor Certificate began to be issued in 1967. This was ten years after survivors on the mainland started to receive this certificate. For the survivors of Okinawa, it took 20 years following the atomic bombings for support to finally reach them.

(Originally published on April 2, 1995)