Ibuse’s Hiroshima

Shigematsu Shizuma, the protagonist of Masuji Ibuse’s novel, Black Rain, was on his way to work on the morning of August 6, 1945, when he entered Yokogawa Station to board the Kabe train. That morning’s radio broadcast had announced that “One B-29 is proceeding northward.” But he had paid it little attention, since they were so used to hearing similar announcements. The train was about to leave when – at a place three meters to its left – he suddenly saw:

“…a ball of blindingly intense light, and simultaneously I was plunged into total, unseeing darkness. The next instant, the black veil in which I seemed to be enveloped was pierced by cries and screams…curses…indescribable confusion. The passengers came pouring out of the car. I was squeezed off the deck and flung onto the tracks…bodies were piled up…cries and groans rising all about me (p. 37)…”

Struggling through the crowd, he clambers up onto the platform, and finds himself clinging for his life to a pillar. Buffeted mercilessly by the winds, he wraps himself around it: barely holding on, as the skin of his shoulders, arms and legs is scraped raw. Eventually the roaring subsides, and a silence descends around him. Slowly he opens his eyes: everything is obscured by a light brown haze; a chalky white powder is falling from the sky. Not a soul can be seen on the platform. Dozens of electric wires are dangling around the pillar, as he climbs over a fence of old railway ties to escape from the station. Every house adjoining the station has been knocked down flat, covering the ground with an undulating sea of tiles.

To the east of the station was the Yokogawa Shrine: its sanctuary decimated; its worship hall vanished, leaving only its clay foundation, a bare and ugly hump. In the street by the shrine were people whose heads and shoulders were covered with dust. There was not one of them who was not bleeding:

“…from the head, from the face, from the hands…from any place from which it was possible to bleed…One woman, her cheeks so swollen that they drooped on either side in heavy pouches…Another carrying a baby in her arms…constantly wiping at the baby’s eyes…clogged with some substance like ash…women and children shrieking as they ran; others crying for relief from their pain (p.44, 45)…”

He continues to walk among the swarm of people from Yokogawa Station along the highway toward Mitaki Park. Running his hand over his face, it feels wet. Bluish-purple shreds of something sticky comes off in his hand. There was no particular pain, but a prickling at the nape
of his neck. His cheek feels as if countless particles clung to it. Then a chill struck his body – not faintness, but a crushing mental shock. As he brushes his hair, a cloud of powder falls from it.

Along the railroad tracks stretched refugees like a trail of ants. In the distance, the hill in the park was like a great pale bun with ants swarming all over it. As he passes the Yokogawa Primary School, he spies an emergency water tank.  Rinsing off his face, he notices that his spectacles and hat have disappeared.  After washing, he returns to the station and miraculously finds his glasses. As he carefully bandages his face, he views the devastation all around him:

“…the first thing to meet my gaze was…an enormous… column of cloud…this one trailed a single, thick leg beneath it, and reached up high into the heavens. Flattening out at its peak, it swelled out fatter and fatter like an opening mushroom…The head of the mushroom would billow out…its body would emit a fierce light, in ever-changing shades of red, purple, lapis lazuli, or green. And all the time it went on boiling out unceasingly from within. Its stalk, like a twisted veil of fine cloth…The cloud loomed over the city (p. 53)…”

Eventually he arrives at the West Parade Ground, where there are refugees as far as the eye can see. He walks along the edge, heading toward Hiroshima Station. On his way there are countless people covered in blackish dried blood. They stagger along, arms dangling at their sides. Some walk with eyes shut, carried by the movement of the crowd. In the crush of body against body, children are separated from their parents. Others fall beneath the feet of the crowd and are crushed. The cries and screams of pain are deafening:

“A middle-aged man carrying an old man on his back…A bare-footed woman shading her eyes with both hands, who sobbed helplessly as she walked…An elderly man…half dragging, a woman whose face, arms, and chest were covered with blood…A young woman who came along almost naked, with a naked baby, its face almost entirely covered with blood (p. 58)…”

When he reaches Hiroshima Station, the trains are jammed with refugees. The windows and doors of the station have disappeared; great gaps are blown out of its walls. In front of it, the streets are on fire; so he presses on toward the Women’s Commercial College. Here, there is no water in the taps; so no one can drink or wash. Looking up at the sky, he sees the mushroom cloud looming. He finally finds a bucket of water, gulps it down and washes himself. In the distance he sees a funnel of flame shooting up into the sky. It sucks up smoke and fire into a great whirlpool. Around it winds a shelf of clouds, from which gobbets of fire fall downward.

He walks slowly through the city, as its buildings are consumed by fire. When he finally arrives at the sports stadium, its grounds are a turmoil of the injured. Threading his way through them, he miraculously finds his wife waiting for him:

“You’re not hurt?” I asked.

“No.” Seeing my face, she looked down and said no more.

“What about the house?”

“It tilted, but it’s still standing.”…

“I expect Yasuko’s all right (p.83, 84)…”

Shigematsu, his wife, Shigeko, and their niece, Yasuko live in the village of Kobatake. Although theirs is a traditional farming family, Shigematsu worked for the firm of Japan Transport during the war. The novel takes place in the present, and concerns this family’s experience of that day and its aftermath. Both Shigematsu and his niece, Yasuko, are victims of “radiation sickness”. It has left him with diminished strength for work, and has utterly destroyed her prospects for marriage and a family. Shigematsu had been responsible for Yasuko’s originally moving to Hiroshima: as her uncle, he feels an enduring guilt. She is like a daughter to he and his wife, so they have taken great pains over the years to find a husband for her. But rumors of her having been exposed to “black rain” from the bomb have doomed her marriage prospects forever. Let us return to that fateful day.

Shigematsu leaves Shigeko at the stadium to inspect their home. He finds it and the surrounding neighborhood in ruins. From there he wanders through the wasteland, back to the stadium and his wife. Now they both set off for their home, hoping to find their niece, Yasuko. When they arrive and find she’s returned, they all shed tears of joy. Shigematsu has received burns on his face from the blast. Yasuko has black stains on her hands: caused by the bomb’s “black rain”. These are merely the first symptoms of their lifelong “atomic disease”. And there is no telling whether it will be passed down to future generations. Fearing that Hiroshima’s fires are spreading – and will soon engulf their neighborhood – the family decides to flee. Now they join the vast procession of the injured:

“…Among those I particularly noticed were a man whose shoulder bone seemed almost to be showing…a man and woman carrying a dead child, covered with blood…a woman with her hair caked with blood…only her eyes and teeth showing white…At one moment, we would be able to see far into the distance; at the next, we would be enveloped in smoke…To blunder into red-hot cinders lying on the ground would mean getting badly burned…we stumbled over dead bodies, or fell forward, jamming our hands into the hot asphalt. Once, when my shoe caught on a body half consumed by fire and the bones of the legs and thighs scattered in all directions, I shrieked despite myself and halted, petrified with horror (p. 95-98)…”

Reaching Sangino Bridge, they find a sea of charcoal all around them. Pieces of timber smoldered; shafts of smoke climbed upward. A great fire was raging around Yokogawa; huge columns of flame swirled up into the sky. Nothing was left of the Hakushima Shrine but its old stone wall. The camphor trees at the Kokutaiji Temple had been uprooted. They lay burnt and carbonized before them, their great roots thrust up in the air. Shattered tombstones mingled in confusion on the ground. And all along the way were corpses:

“…in a hundred different poses…a man and a woman…lay face up…bodies completely naked and scorched black, and the buttocks of each rested in a great pool of feces…The hair on their heads was burned away…Still we came upon corpses, and yet more corpses. Driven by the heat and trapped by the smoke, they had flung themselves face down in their suffering, only to be unable to rise again and to suffocate where they lay (p. 99, 100)…”

Through the nauseating stench of death they continue their journey. Walking along the embankment of a stream, they see bodies sprawling in the undergrowth. Others come floating in succession down the river. Suddenly Yasuko cries “Uncle! Uncle!” and bursts into tears. Before her a three-year-old boy had opened a corpse’s dress, and was playing with one of its breasts. Clutching it, he gazes up at them with terror in his eyes.

They finally reach Yamamoto Station, where the trains are still running. All the coaches are crammed with people, but they manage to squeeze their way in. Shigematsu is wedged in beside a woman holding a bundle in her arms. Touching it, involuntarily, he feels what seems like a human ear. Fearing the child might suffocate wrapped up so tightly in a bundle, he asks:

“Excuse me Ma’am,” I said softly. “Is it your child in here?”

“Yes,” she said in a scarcely audible voice. “He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, taken aback. “I didn’t know…I really must apologize…”

“Not at all,” she said gently…She hitched the bundle up, bent her head, and was seized with a fit of weeping.

“It was when the bomb burst,” she said through her sobs. “The sling of his hammock broke, and he was dashed against the wall and killed…I’m taking him to my old home in Iimori, so I can bury him in the cemetery (p. 114)…”

The train breaks down. They are jammed against one another, and the heat is stifling. Many are suffering from nausea and diarrhea. They finally arrive at the Furuichi Works, where they are able to wash, eat a meal, and obtain clean clothes. They sleep in its dormitory, overnight. As Shigematsu rises the next morning, he feels excruciating pain shoot through his shoulders and down his lower back and legs. When he tries to get up, he feels jabbing pains in his toes. As he walks back and forth, it feels like he’s treading on needles. Eventually he is able to get down the stairs, but only on all fours, going backwards.  Many refugees have arrived at the dormitory, overnight; and those that are able begin relief work throughout the city. Others begin the mournful search for missing relatives. Most urgent of all, however, is to dispose of the all the corpses:

“…burning the bodies on the riverbed was an unavoidable necessity. The justifications, ultimately, were hygienic…there was no one to write death certificates, and no one to receive them…In this heat, a dead body soon decomposed. The crematorium was so full as to be useless. Haste then, was the order of the day: they must be burnt on the river bed (p. 131)…”

Shigematsu is drafted to perform the role of priest to chant the service over the dead. As the bodies are burnt, and the services proceed, he soon finds himself exhausted. Then they run out of coffins, so he must recite the Buddhist scriptures over the corpses, themselves. Their faces are covered with white cloth, but the discoloration of the limbs is in plain view. Others are bound in bandages stained dark red with blood.  After the service, the bodies are taken for cremation. Shigematsu follows a handcart with a mother and her dead daughter’s corpse. They finally find a spot on the embankment:

“On both sides of the river…Wherever I looked…the columns of smoke were rising…In the center of the hole were two stones…They laid the body on these, and under and beside it they put coal…They propped pieces of timber and old wooden packing cases against it…The head and face they covered with sawdust…Finally, they swathed the whole in dampened straw and straw mats, and the preparations were completed.

I could still glimpse the girl’s hair and forehead through a gap where one of the mats curled upward, and the stony pallor of her face…I read the “Threefold Refuge,” and left before the flames began to rise.

From the top of the embankment, countless holes were visible…I could see bones in most of them…the skulls gazed fixedly at the sky with empty eye-sockets (p. 137, 38)…”

Later, by himself, Shigematsu attends to his injuries. After washing, he examines his burned left cheek, which had been covered with a bandage. Fetching his first-aid kit, he looks into the washstand mirror. He peels off the sticking plaster; cautiously removes the cloth. His scorched eyelids had become small black lumps. His left cheek was blackish-purple; the skin had shriveled. The left nostril was infected, with pus underneath:

“Could this be my face, I wondered (p. 143)…”

Living with his wife and niece at its dormitory, Shigetmatsu is sent on company business. From the dormitory he walks to the train station, where he travels to other villages in a fruitless attempt to obtain coal for production. Along the way he tours the ruins of Hiroshima. On the burned-out site of the temples of Tera-machi, its clay walls have collapsed. Everywhere he goes there is death:

“The mound of corpses was black with swarming flies…a stifling, penetrating odor that stung at the nose and throat assailed my nostrils…Once I emerged from the ruins of Tera-machi, the smell abated somewhat. It was only a moment’s respite…I was enveloped once more in a vile stench. I was in hell, a hell that tortured with omnipresent, inescapable odor…

Since the city had been almost entirely razed to the ground by the fire, one could take in the distant view at a glance…Nothing stood on the scorched waste at the center of the city save the skeletons of a few buildings…a litter of carbonized timbers and fragments of tile (p. 160)…”

After a few days, the injured begin arriving back at their villages. Some die shortly after reaching home. Others suffer excruciating pain. Doctors examining them diagnose an unknown disease: one for which there is no known treatment.  Desperately, they apply ointments and an assortment of home remedies, but there is a drastic shortage of what little medicine they have.

On his futile company journeys to try to obtain coal, Shigematsu observes plants that have sprouted shoots at an unheard of rate of growth. He wonders whether the bomb has caused cellular mutations. It causes plants and flies to flourish, while destroying human beings. And everywhere he goes people are wandering through the ruins, searching for missing relatives.

He visits a hospital overflowing with victims of the bomb. Workers in surgical smocks walk along the corridors; patients totter through the hallways on unsteady legs. Most suffer from loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and bloody stools. And there are so many that they cannot be accommodated in the hospital wards, so they spill out into the corridors around them. Those who come to care for the sick, or look for missing relatives, have to pick their way between the patients lying on the floor. Often their injuries make them unrecognizable to their very own families. And some have a fever that is contagious; so that a healthy one, caring for a relative, will catch it and die before the patient, himself. Some are dying of raw burns; others groan or excrete blood. A foul odor hangs in the air wherever he goes.

We return from the past to the present day village of Kobatake. Shigematsu, who, over the years, has engaged in ongoing efforts to find a husband for his niece, Yasuko, learns that their negotiations have broken down. Yatsuko has begun to show renewed symptoms of “radiation sickness”. Her sight is rapidly deteriorating; she complains of a constant ringing in her ears. Finally, she wrote to her latest suitor and confessed her exposure to the bomb’s “black rain”.

Shigematsu had been the first of their family to suffer from “radiation sickness”; now his niece, Yatsuko, in a delayed reaction, is, herself, becoming ill. And her symptoms are far worse than his. Her color has deteriorated; her white, transparent skin is a sign of anemia. Her front teeth grow loose; abcesses form on her buttocks. Finally, she enters the hospital.  On her rounds, a nurse finds Yatsuko sobbing,  kneeling beside her bed. Asking her what is wrong, she is told the abcesses itch so badly that she can hardly stand it:

“The nurse told her to lift her night kimono and, peering with her torch, saw a wriggling mass of seat worms. A type of small worm that lives as a parasite in the human body, they crawl out of the anus during the night to lay their eggs. It seems likely that they had laid their eggs in the putrefying tissue of the abcess (p. 232)…”

Shigematsu’s wife, Shigeku, who has been caring for Yatsuko, begins to suffer from dizzy spells, herself. A nurse is hired to stay with her. They discover that she suffers from a strained heart. Then Yatsuko’s condition worsens: she suffers daily attacks of pain; and grows emaciated. Now her teeth fall out; her gums are swollen with blood.

There had been more than a dozen people suffering from “radiation sickness” in the village Kobatake.  Only three had survived – Shigematsu and his two friends, Shokichi and Asajiro. Three proud men raised in a tradition in which men are seen as the “breadwinner”, their enforced idleness because of “radiation sickness” causes them to “lose face” in the eyes of the community. In an effort to combine recreation with work, they begin a project to raise carp. If they invest capital and produce food, then nobody can accuse them of merely amusing themselves. They will be able to enjoy fishing without worrying about what other people think.

One morning, Shigematsu goes to inspect the hatchery ponds in which the three friends have raised carp. The water weeds are thriving, their oval, shiny leaves dot the surface of the pond. From their midst rises a slender stalk on which a small, dark purple flower has bloomed:

“Shigematsu looked up. “If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen,” he prophesied to himself…”Let a rainbow appear…and Yatsuko will be cured.”

So he told himself, with his eyes on the nearby hills, though he knew all the while it could never come true (p.300)…”


On the morning of August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, a U.S. B-29 bomber, dropped a 15-kiloton nuclear bomb, “Little Boy”, on the city of Hiroshima. Between 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly – most of them women, children and the elderly. In the month that followed the death toll rose to  135,000. In his, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Gar Alperovitz has painstakingly examined the historical record concerning the decision to drop the bomb. Although there is no substitute for reading that important work in its entirety, we will limit ourselves to the conclusions of his recent article, ”The War Was Won Before Hiroshima – And the Generals Who Dropped the Bomb Knew It.” There, he writes:

“…the vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military…It was only with the entry of the Soviet Union’s Red Army into the war two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that the Japanese moved to finally surrender. Japan was used to losing cities to American bombing; what their military leaders feared more was the destruction of the country’s military by an all-out Red Army assault (p. 2)…”

The top American military leaders who fought World War II believed the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge on surrender. Some believed that the killing of such large numbers of civilians was immoral. Adm. William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, later wrote:

“…the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…in being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

The commanding general of the US Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, wrote:

“…the Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.”

Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, wrote:

“…the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan…”

Commander of the US Third Fleet, Adm. William “Bull” Halsey Jr., wrote:

“…the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…It was a mistake to ever drop it…[the scientists] had this toy  and they wanted to try it out…”

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, in his memoirs, wrote:

“…Japan was already defeated and (that) the dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives…”

Alperovitz’s conclusion is that the record speaks for itself: the majority of the leaders of the US military believed that the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a military necessity. American intelligence had broken the Japanese codes, knew they were trying to surrender, and expected an early Russian declaration of war that would bring surrender long before an American invasion could begin. So why did they drop the bomb?

Secretary of State James Burnes, one of President Truman’s closest advisers, viewed the bomb as a diplomatic, rather than a military weapon, that would help the United States dominate the postwar era. According to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, who met with him before the dropping of the bombs:

“[Burnes] was concerned about Russia’s postwar behavior…[and thought] that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.”

The author, Gar Alperovitz, concludes:

“History is rarely simple, and confronting it head-on, with critical honesty, is often quite painful. Myths, no matter how oversimplified or blatantly false, are too often far more likely to be embraced than inconvenient and unsettling truths…we can perhaps one day begin to ask ourselves more challenging questions about…why we really dropped the atomic bomb…”