When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs over Japan in August 1945, people were blown apart, burned, and crushed. Debris and ash descended as radioactive fallout, called black rain. The extreme heat of the explosions ignited massive fires that caused people to flee to rivers, where many drowned.
By the end of the year, the death toll from Hiroshima and Nagasaki totaled more than 200,000. But it didn’t stop there. Many who initially survived would later succumb to radiation-induced illnesses; sometimes their children, too, suffered from related ailments. Hibakusha is the Japanese term for “atomic bomb survivors”—but given the lasting damages of radiation exposure, it’s perhaps more accurately translated as “atomic bomb sufferers.”
At the time of the Hiroshima bombing, my mother was six years old and at home, a mile away from the hypocenter (the ground directly below the explosion)—or so I thought. She never told me about her experience, and I never asked about it, as the thought of facing her vulnerability scared me. I witnessed my mother’s suffering throughout her life—from Ménière’s disease in her 30s, “blood booster” shots in her 40s, and multiple cancers in her 50s. She died at age 62. My aunt later told me that my mother might have been even closer to the hypocenter, at an elementary school where hundreds of children perished.
Ryouga Suwa (84)
Suwa’s parents died at his father’s Buddhist temple, and his 16-year-old sister never returned home. Suwa was a genbaku koji, an atomic bomb orphan, and a nyushi hibakusha, meaning he was exposed to radiation close to the hypocenter after the explosion. Before his death, in 2019, Suwa wrote (above, in part): “It would be ideal if we could all cultivate in us the ability to dignify each other instead of getting upset over our differences.”
My grandfather died from acute radiation sickness. My grandmother died from lung cancer. My cousin, whose mother was in Hiroshima that day, developed an autoimmune disease that took her life when she was in her 50s. I was grateful to reach 50. I never thought I would survive that long.
Knowing the horrors of atomic bombs, many hibakusha advocate for peace. Their vision became partially realized on January 22, 2021, when the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was put into effect, but neither the U.S. nor Japan has ratified it.
I tell the stories of hibakusha in the university courses I teach and on educational tours to Japan that I lead. Photographer Haruka Sakaguchi traveled there in 2017 to seek out hibakusha willing to share their experiences, which she preserves in her documentary project 1945.
A National Geographic Explorer, Sakaguchi pays tribute to this ever shrinking community through portraits, testimonies, and messages to future generations. I’m grateful for her work, which serves our shared goal: to ensure that this atrocity and the ongoing plight of these people aren’t forgotten.
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.