A Hiroshima Survivor: Miyoko Matsubara Tells Hubertus Hoffmann Her Story

Posted in Japan | 20-Oct-07 | Author: Miyoko Matsubara

Miyoko Matsubara - a Hiroshima survivor: "Suddenly I saw a flash and then an explosion beyond description. My hands were…
Miyoko Matsubara - a Hiroshima survivor: "Suddenly I saw a flash and then an explosion beyond description. My hands were swollen three times their normal size, my face and legs burned."
I am Miyoko Matsubara, a Hibakusha, or an Atomic Bomb survivor.

I am honored to be given the opportunity to share with you my first-hand experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

62 years ago, in 1945, Japan was at war. Elementary school children between 8 and 11 years old were urged to evacuate to the countryside for protection from the air raids. Children under 7 years old remained in the city with their families. Therefore, ordinary citizens, particularly children younger than seven, women, the weak, and elderly were left at home. The majority of the A-bomb victims were these innocent, ordinary people. By the end of 1945, almost 140,000 people had perished as a result of the atomic bombing. People did not all die on that very day, but within the same year.

The cause of the death was from the effects of the heat rays, blast and the radiation; the destructive power of the A-bomb. What horrible weapons, the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons can be!

This is a map of Hiroshima after the A-bomb was dropped. The red area is where it was completely burned, a diameter of over 4 km or 2.5 miles. The yellow is where houses were destroyed but not completely burned down.

Our house and also the school I was going to were located in this area but not completely burned down.

My younger brother was 9 years old and evacuated to my father's hometown in Shimane. He returned to Hiroshima with our aunt. My sister was 5 years old and put in a day care center near where my mother worked. My mother worked for the Army Clothes Factory, a red brick building located about 3 km away from the hypocenter. Glasses shattered here and there and my sister received cuts but my mother was safe.

My elder brother was 17 and took part in military activities in the next Prefecture, Yamaguchi. When he heard the war ended on August 15th, he returned to Hiroshima. He was the so-called secondary A-bomb victim. My father was a fireman and came to the city to help clean up those burned houses immediately after the A-bomb was dropped.

I would like to take this opportunity to present some drawings I drew three years ago

This drawing is of students practicing using bamboo spears in case of an attack. The students practiced in the school ground which was 2.4 km from the hypocenter. How innocent we were, not knowing anything about the United States developing nuclear arms while we were drilling for attacks with bamboo spears.

Hiroshima Survivor Miyoko Matsubara

There was no summer vacation for students during the war. At the time when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, I was only 12 years old, working as a mobilized student, demolishing wooden houses in order to prevent the spreading of fires. I was about 1.5 km or less than a mile away from the hypocenter. In the morning of August 6, 1945, the skies were perfectly clear, and as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the temperature rose rapidly. About 350,000 people were in the city on that day including more than 40,000 military personnel. Many students, including myself, were working on six building demolition sites, or in factories or military facilities.

When I was working with my classmates, helping to dismantle wooden houses, my best friend, Takiko, suddenly shouted, "I can hear the sound of a B-29." I thought this was not possible, because the air-raid alarm had already been cleared, and the few B-29's spotted in the daytime had not attacked Hiroshima before.

I looked up and there, high in the sky, I could see white smoke trailing from the plane. Suddenly, I saw a flash and then an explosion beyond description. I quickly lay flat on the ground. I heard an indescribable, deafening roar. My first thought was that the plane had aimed at me. I learned later that the first atomic bomb had not only been aimed at me, but at the entire city of Hiroshima.

I had no idea how long I had been lying there, but when I regained consciousness, the bright sunny morning had turned into a dark horrible night. I was enveloped in a dense, dusty mist. Takiko, who had been standing next to me, had simply disappeared. I could see no one. Then I realized that maybe I had been thrown some distance by the blast. I found myself lying on my right side.

I rose to my feet and was shocked when I looked at my hands. They were seriously burned and swollen about two or three times their normal size. Most of my blue clothes were gone. The only clothes remaining on my body were dirty white underwear. I thought that the white color protected me from being burned to death - as you know, black absorbs light, and white reflects light.

I realized that my face, hands, and legs had been burned and were swollen, with skin peeling off and hanging down in shreds. For the next three days, I was on the verge of death. I suffered from a lingering high fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding gums. Half of my hair fell out. Severe Keloid scars started to develop on my face, arms, and legs.

Seven months later, I got healthy enough to return to school. I kept studying hard, but because of my poor health and severe keloid scars on my face, I could not get a job even though I managed to graduate from school.

About ten years after the bombing, when I was a young adult, there were numerous times when I deeply felt the pain of being discriminated against by my own society. For example, when I was on the train, no one would sit next to me because they feared that I had been exposed to radiation and was therefore contaminated. For the same reason, no man wanted to marry me. Daily life was difficult, unbearable, and painful. Life itself was hell.

Around that time I began visiting Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto's Church. I faithfully attended his Monday evening gatherings for atomic-bomb survivors where, listening to sermons and singing hymns with others, my heart gradually came to find peace.

"When I was a young adult, there were numerous times when I deeply felt the pain of being discriminated against…
"When I was a young adult, there were numerous times when I deeply felt the pain of being discriminated against by my own society. No one wanted to sit next to me because they feared that I had been contaminated."
Soon after the war, my father started a new business—the making of concrete blocks used in construction work. In order to get sand from the river, we moved to the riverside, and built a small workplace hut, the size of a 6 tatami-mat rooms, with a tin roof and plywood walls. There was no space for a toilet and so whenever nature called, we walked down to the riverside.

My elder brother became depressed after Japan lost the war and he became an alcoholic. He got married when he was young but both he and his wife died when they were 33, leaving 3 small children. As if following them, my father died of cancer. During the 20 years after the war, we lost three of our loved ones and during those years, I was in and out of hospitals struggling with the after-effects of the A-bomb. I and my aged mother took care of the 3, 5, and 9-year-old children my brother and his wife left behind. I decided to raise my brother's children for him. The children love me as their own mother, and their love has brought me endless joy and added much-needed sweetness to my otherwise bitter life.

In 1953, a Christian society in Japan made it possible for me to undergo cosmetic and corrective surgeries. I had twelve operations over a seven-month period. As a result, I was able to open and close my eyes and to straighten out my crooked fingers and arm. The operations made my life somewhat more bearable, and helped me regain some of my lost dignity. After the operations, I returned to Hiroshima, wishing to express my gratitude to those who helped me by doing whatever I could to help other people. For the next eight years, I worked as a live-in caretaker for 30 sight-impaired children.

My one pleasure each week was attending Sunday morning services at church. The Americans I met there did not fit the image I had formed of them earlier. They were extremely kind, and deeply regretted their country's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of them was Mrs. Barbara Reynolds who later founded the World Friendship Center (WFC) in Hiroshima. She was a pious Quaker who devoted her life and all she had to make Hiroshima internationally known. Because of her efforts of good will, she eventually became a special honorary citizen of Hiroshima, in 1985. Her hatred of the bombings was so strong and her caring for the victims so real, I often wondered how she could possibly be from the same country as the men who had bombed Hiroshima.

In March 1962, just before the U.S. resumed nuclear testing and after I had been working at the home for the sight-impaired children for eight years, I found a way to work at helping to abolish nuclear weapons. Through the help of Barbara Reynolds, who organized the World Peace Pilgrimage, I was chosen as a representative of Hiroshima to present the heartfelt message of the survivors of the A-bomb. We visited 14 countries in five months, including the United States, England, France, West and East Germany and the Soviet Union. Everywhere, we appealed for a ban on nuclear testing.

I owe what I am today to the love of Mrs. Barbara Reynolds and many other people. She is the one who persuaded and encouraged me to speak of my experience to foreigners in English even though I had no confidence in my ability or sufficient knowledge of the English language in my view. She and many kind Americans helped me overcome the fear of speaking about my experience. I am very grateful to all of them.

Gradually coming to like and trust Americans, I realized that had the Japanese possessed the A-bomb, we, too, would have used it. The real enemy, therefore, is not America. It is war and nuclear weapons. Those weapons must be abolished.

However, the past continues to haunt me and other A-bomb victims. In 1988, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have an operation. The operation got rid of the cancer, but soon after that three polyps were found in my stomach. The doctor says these polyps need to be checked regularly because they may develop into cancer. I am still suffering from various illnesses. And I have never married and am still single today.

The effect of the atomic bombing was far-reaching and everlasting. It indiscriminately took the lives of numerous innocent people in an instant. Not only that, even today, six decades after the war, about eighty thousand people in Hiroshima are still suffering from the effects of radiation.

The war ended 62 years ago, but for the Hibakusha, the atomic bombing and the war are not just events of the past. They continue to haunt us, both mentally and physically. Radiation causes cancer. Even after we recover from one form of cancer, we live with the constant fear that the cancer will return or that a different form of cancer might develop. In a sense, for the Hibakusha, every day is "August the 6th". We have not escaped the war and the A-bomb, nor will we ever. It's always with us.

My younger brother, so-call secondary Hibakusha, had struggled with various illness and leukemia. He died five months ago.

I have no words to express my own sorrow so the poem that Touge Sankichi wrote comes to mind:

"Gradually coming to like and trust Americans, I realized that had the Japanese possessed the A-bomb, we, too, would have…
"Gradually coming to like and trust Americans, I realized that had the Japanese possessed the A-bomb, we, too, would have used it."
Give me back my father, give me back my mother;
Give me back my grand parent;
Give me back my children.

Give me back myself,
Give me back my people.

As long as men live in this world,
Immutable peace
Bring back peace.

And I feel compelled to say
Please bring me back my brother
Bring me back Masaru

I would like to appeal to you that we, the Hibakusha, have overcome the feeling of hatred and have tried to create a peaceful world non-violently. Therefore, I would say to the people in the world, that Hiroshima is the model of peace and of being a vital city. This is the spirit of Hiroshima. I hope that other countries can learn from our experience in order to stop future wars and prevent endless conflicts.

Today, the total amount of nuclear weapons possessed by the seven declared nuclear countries is probably over 12,000. In addition, the number of nations that have nuclear weapons is still increasing.

We human beings are living with the continual possibility of being exterminated. If we do not do away with all nuclear arms on earth, we cannot expect a bright future.

Nuclear weapons are manufactured by human beings. War is started by us human beings, too. Peace begins when we share our sufferings with each other. We must all strive to overcome hatred and learn to love one another. The most important task for the people of the world is to cultivate friendship through exchanges involving religion, art, culture, sports, education, and economic assistance.

I am going to do my best to keep the spirit of the Hibakusha and Hiroshima alive—the spirit of reconciliation and overcoming differences between people including those of the U.S. and Japan. No one else should ever need to suffer as the A-bomb survivors have.

I am now over 74 years old and physically weakened because of radiation-related diseases, but I will keep rallying for nuclear abolition and working towards world peace as long as my health condition allows me to do so. I have shared my experience with people of all over the world for more than 45 years because I don't want you and future generations to experience the same tragedy that I had. My only wish is that you will live happy and peaceful lives. With this spirit, I have and I will continue to talk about my experience. So, let us get united and work hard for world peace!

In the center of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, you will find the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. Inscribed on that monument are the words, "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil." Those words express the spirit of Hiroshima.

When you go back to your home, I urge you to please tell your family, friends and relatives about the horror of the A-bomb and about the intense desire of the people of Hiroshima to eliminate nuclear weapons.

We rely on you to continue our fight for nuclear abolition around the world. We also rely on you to prevent the evil from being repeated. We rely on you to work towards creating a peaceful world. In other words, we, the Hibakusha, are passing along our torch of hope and peace to you. Please keep the torch burning—forever.