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Hibakusha: The strange story of factually flawed accounts of Nagasaki after the A-bomb

Joichi Ishida, right, who wrote the "atomic bomb circumstances investigation" while a student in 1946, is seen answering questions from Mitsugi Moriguchi about the leaflet, in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on Nov. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Imano)

FUKUOKA -- "Neuralgia was cured." "Hair grew from a bald person's head." "Some people are terrified of the atomic bomb, but you don't have to be."

    So read some of the passages in an old, handwritten leaflet that Nagasaki resident Mitsugi Moriguchi, 85, opened at his home at the start of 2021. He was puzzled at the contents of the leaflet, titled "8.9 Nagasaki (1945) atomic bomb damage circumstances investigation." Though it purported to be an account of the damage inflicted by the United States' Aug. 9, 1945 nuclear attack on the city, it includes several strange accounts.

    Moriguchi is secretary-general of The Nagasaki Testimonial Society, a Nagasaki-based citizens' group which records hibakusha experiences. The leaflet was found among the effects of Tsukasa Uchida, the society's former head who died aged 90 in April 2020. A former city government employee, Uchida devoted his life to keeping records of what happened, including visiting people who lived close to the bomb's hypocenter to recreate a map of the area as it was at the time of the explosion.

    His bereaved family entrusted dozens of boxes of personal effects to the society, including hundreds of documents. Society members deciphered most of the items, but this leaflet was the only thing they couldn't trace. It is dated June 19, 1946, and the author is credited as Joichi Ishida.

    The report includes detailed descriptions of hibakushas' health and what they were doing when the bomb fell. As a record it is a precious item, but some parts were plain hearsay. After the war, unfounded rumors including that A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, "die young" and that they "pass genetic faults on to their children" spread, and discrimination and segregation took deep root.

    But who compiled these records, and with what aim? Moriguchi asked an acquaintance to find this Joichi Ishida.

    The "atomic bomb circumstances investigation" leaflet, written in 1946, is seen in the city of Nagasaki on April 8, 2021. A section titled "town rumors, compiled," includes some baseless stories, such as, "There's a bumper crop of mushrooms near the hypocenter," "Neuralgia was cured," and, "Hair grew from a bald person's head." It states that "stories like those out of fairy tales are currently popular in the town." (Mainichi/Yuki Imano)

    Ishida, now 93, lives in Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture. In November, Moriguchi flew to Okinawa. When Ishida welcomed him to his home, he said he had no memory of the leaflet, but then as he squinted through a magnifying glass, he let out a cry of surprise. "This is my handwriting. It's because my father told me I should leave a record."

    Ishida first visited Nagasaki in autumn 1945. At the time, he was studying at a Tokyo high school under the old education system. His father, a judge, had been made head of the Nagasaki District Court and moved there with Ishida's 14-year-old sister. His mother had died young, and Ishida was left alone in Tokyo. The capital was hit by constant U.S. air raids, and his home was burned down in May 1945.

    Ishida learned of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, while listening to U.S. Navy shortwave broadcasts at the Imperial Japanese Navy's technical research center, where he'd been mobilized. Ishida's father and sister survived. But his sister's exposure to the bomb caused her white blood cell count to plummet, and she was so constantly nauseous that she had to be hospitalized. Ishida was finally able to get a ticket to see them in the autumn of that year, and took the train to Nagasaki. He arrived to burned-out fields, and people groaning inside the ruins.

    The conversation with Ishida proceeded to the main point: the report's spurious claims that exposure to the bomb had healed someone's neuralgia, and that it had caused a bald person to sprout new hair -- claims that became the basis for arguing that people don't have to be extremely fearful of the bomb. How did the young Ishida come to leave factually inaccurate rumors?

    Retracing his memories, Ishida said he had felt he must leave a record of the exposure to the atomic bomb, and came numerous times from Tokyo to Nagasaki to walk around the city.

    Joichi Ishida, right, who was a student when he penned the "atomic bomb circumstances investigation" pamphlet in 1946, is seen answering questions about it from Mitsugi Moriguchi in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on Nov. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Imano)

    "Nagasaki at the time was called a city of death where no grass or trees would grow for 70 years. I wanted so much to encourage the people of Nagasaki." Because of that, he made sure to include any positive stories he heard. The report finishes with the words: "I will never stop hoping for the rebirth of Nagasaki."

    "So that was why," Moriguchi said. At the time, people in Nagasaki living on the edge of despair would apparently laugh about their sorrows to distract themselves from how they felt. There were many nonsensical jokes, too. Dark jokes like, "Line up the people with neuralgia and drop the bomb again. They'll all be cured, " helped people forget the harsh reality. But at the same time, the people being laughed at would be hurt by the jokes, and their accumulation led to discrimination and slander.

    After the war, Moriguchi became an elementary school teacher, and Ishida followed in his father's footsteps as a judge, where each worked tirelessly. The two, who had never before crossed paths and were brought together by a strange connection, talked for two hours without pause. "I'm glad we could meet. My curiosity has been satisfied," Moriguchi said with a smile.

    The "testimony, Nagasaki and Hiroshima voices" section of the December 2021 edition of The Nagasaki Testimonial Society's annual periodical also records Ishida's story.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Imano, Kyushu News Department)

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