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Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


(Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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