A Hard Rain Did Fall: a Big Win in Court for Hiroshima Victims

 “Thirsty woman catching black rain in her mouth” de Akiko Takakura/WikimediaCommons.

Just weeks before the 2021 commemoration of the August 6, 1945 US atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima, a Japanese court ruled that victims of the radioactive “black rain” who were living beyond the officially recognized contamination zone at the time, should be included in the group considered bomb “survivors” or “Hibakusha” and receive the same benefits.

A Hiroshima high court acknowledged in its July 14, 2021 ruling that many more people suffered as a result of exposure to “black rain” than have hitherto been recognized as victims.

“Black rain” was described in a CNN story as a “mixture of fallout particles from the explosion, carbon residue from citywide fires, and other dangerous elements. The black rain fell on peoples’ skin and clothing, was breathed in, contaminated food and water, and caused widespread radiation poisoning.”

When the verdict was first released last month, it appeared that the Japanese government, under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, might appeal the decision. Instead, Suga declared his government, the defendants in the case, would not appeal it and even suggested that relief might be extended to other affected people beyond the plaintiffs. According to the Asahi Shimbun, this may even include those exposed to radiation as a result of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster on the Japan coast.

The court ruling was important because it recognized and acknowledged not only the heaths effects of the radioactive “black rain” atomic bomb fallout, but also the internal exposure to radiation through the ingestion of contaminated water and food experienced by the 84 plaintiffs in the case.

The ruling of course comes very late in the day as many Hibakusha are already deceased. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs, 79-year-old Seiji Takato, told CNN he was worried that if there was no verdict soon, “we would all die if this (case were) prolonged”.

The plaintiffs will now receive the same benefits as residents of the state-designated black rain zone. According to the Kyodo News, these will include “free health checkups and atomic bomb survivors’ certificates entitling them to medical benefits in the event that they develop 11 specific illnesses caused by radiation.”

The United States, the country which dropped the two atomic bombs — on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and then on Nagasaki three days later — has taken neither responsibility for the devastating health consequences, nor offered an apology or compensation.

Indeed, President Truman, in office when the bombings were authorized, told the Japanese, chillingly, that their sacrifice and suffering were “urgent and necessary.” President Clinton declared that the US “owes no apology to Japan”. He, like other US presidents before and since, clung to the disputable notion that the atomic bombings saved at least one million American lives, an argument ably dispatched by Ward Wilsonon these pages in 2018.

To date, Barack Obama is the only sitting US president to have visited Hiroshima, when he traveled there in 2016, but he too failed to apologize for the atrocity. There have been plenty of lively debates on this question: Would an apology open up old wounds, focus too much on the past and be an admission of wrongdoing? Would it also open the door to a floodgate of demands for monetary compensation? Or is an official apology an essential atonement, albeit merely symbolic at this late stage? Could an apology lead in turn to meaningful international engagement on global peace?

Slowly, the Hibakusha have been gaining recognition. One of its most famous and outspoken members, Setsuko Thurlow, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize awarded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) alongside its executive director, Beatrice Fihn, in 2017.

The award came on the heels of the instrumental role the Hibakusha played in persuading the UN to create the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now ratified by 55 countries and counting, five more than the number that ensured it became law this past January. None of the nuclear weapons states, nor Japan, has signed or ratified the treaty.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is the mantra adopted by the nuclear researchers, whistleblowers and watchdogs at Fairewinds Energy Education: “Radiation knows no borders.”

As Fairewinds wrote in the context of the “black rain” verdict: “Radioactive microscopic particles generated from mining uranium ore, reprocessing atomic fuel, bomb tests, and disastrous meltdowns travel well beyond the arbitrary boundaries and demarcation lines that governments establish to limit their liability and to maintain control over others.”

These warnings serve as a compelling reason to neither test nor use atomic weapons and also as a powerful admonition against the continued use of “civil” nuclear power.

This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.