Finally, the day is coming. On January 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will enter into force. This treaty, the first comprehensive ban of nuclear weapons, sets an important precedent in its recognition of the humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons. The movement to center the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has gained momentum over the last ten years. However, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, called hibakusha, have tirelessly given witness to this humanitarian perspective for 75 years in order to convince the world to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences Under the Mushroom Cloud
“To make sure that no one else suffers as we have suffered,” as Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of Hiroshima, said, that is the call from hibakusha to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. By the end of 1945, the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had killed more than 210,000 victims from the initial blast, burns, and radiation. Victims included not only Japanese citizens, but also citizens from the US and countries in Europe, East Asia, and Southeast Asia who were in the two cities that day. Survivors have suffered from both the physical aftereffects of radiation and from social discrimination. Kazumi Matsui, the Mayor of Hiroshima, stated in 2015 that nuclear weapons are “the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity.” However, proponents of nuclear deterrence neglect the humanitarian perspective. The hibakusha argue that the security-centered perspective on nuclear weapons ignores the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons. To remind people that the critical problem of nuclear weapons is still with us, the hibakusha raise their voices and share their inhumane experiences under the mushroom cloud. In 2020, the average age of the hibakusha is 83 years old, but they continue devoting their lives to telling the world what happened after the atomic bombings and work to make a world without nuclear weapons.
Welcome to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hibakusha’s Testimony
People cannot imagine what they don’t know. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki welcome visitors from all over the world to understand the real consequences of the atomic bombings. Representatives from about 90 countries attend the annual peace ceremony held on the anniversary of the atomic bombings in order to offer consolation to the victims’ souls and express a longing for peace. Both cities call on political leaders to visit, particularly those from states that possess nuclear weapons and make decisions on nuclear policy. Three US presidents have visited Hiroshima: Richard Nixon before his presidency, Jimmy Carter after his presidency, and Barack Obama during his presidency. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also visit international organizations like the UN to communicate the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and appeal for their elimination.
Testimony by hibakusha provides robust evidence of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons through detailed stories about the days during and after the atomic bombings. The hibakusha travel domestically and internationally as well as welcome visitors to hear their testimony. However, giving testimony is not an easy task for them. Many of the hibakusha keep silent about their experiences because the days after the bombings are too painful to put into words. They are also afraid that identifying themselves as hibakusha in the public and media will create stigma and other negative consequences for themselves and their family. Because of these burdens, some hibakusha only share their stories later in life.
The history of WWII is sometimes used as a barrier to prevent the hibakusha’s testimony from being heard. When confronted with the inhumanity of the US atomic bombing, some Americans point to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Even after 50 years had passed, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum had to cancel a special exhibition on the consequences of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of strong public backlash from those who believed the use of atomic bombs was justified. In order to pass on the hibakusha’s message and “make sure that no one else suffers,” the hibakusha must individually digest the history of WWII and deal with the challenge. Although this type of condemnation has lessened over time, a hibakusha of Nagasaki apologized for the attack on Pearl Harbor before he began his testimony in New York in 2015.
Worldwide Cooperation and Collaboration
Over the decades, the hibakusha encountered resistance to their vision of a world without nuclear weapons. The Cold War saw a nuclear arms race and intensified tensions between nuclear superpowers. But the hibakusha resiliently continued, cooperating and collaborating with others who shared their goals, including downwinders, victims of nuclear tests, and supporters of making a nuclear-free world. The hibakusha visited places affected by nuclear development around the world, such as the uranium mines in New Mexico and the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. They exchanged experiences with the people of the Marshall Islands, where the US conducted 67 nuclear tests. They resolutely provided testimony with civil groups and marched with supporters to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the US.
The hibakusha community’s partnership with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and pro-nuclear disarmament states accelerated the movement to create a legal framework for prohibiting nuclear weapons as illegitimate tools of war. The international humanitarian conferences in Norway (2013), Mexico (2014), and Austria (2014) promoted the understanding of the short- and long-term impact of nuclear detonation with testimonies of hibakusha and victims of nuclear tests. Experts also pointed out the risk of an accidental nuclear explosion and the vulnerability of nuclear command and control infrastructures. The momentum led to the achievement of the TPNW.
It has been 75 years since the world witnessed the humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons, and the hibakusha are humanity’s living memory of this catastrophe. It is time to start the generational transition of the movement against nuclear weapons from the hibakusha to young people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now the hibakushas’ children and grandchildren give testimony along with their elders, joining them on a long path towards the goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. To reach that goal, the TPNW’s entry into force is just a beginning, but, as Setsuko Thurlow said, it is, “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”
The featured image in this blog is courtesy of Kyla Duhamel on flickr.