Radiation’s Residual Effects on Identity

Theo Bammi

The first time John Smitherman witnessed a nuclear explosion, it was pure spectacle. Recounting the story for Studs Terkel’s The Good War, Smitherman recalls that even from his vantage point miles away, the “ball of fire” tearing Bikini Atoll apart on July 1, 1946 was indescribable (Terkel 547). The second explosion, however, was less satisfying. Instead of warmth, Smitherman was pelted with a mix of seawater and ocean floor that he only later discovered was highly irradiated (548). For Yamaoka Michiko, a resident of Hiroshima, her experience with the atomic bomb was pure terror. Only a half mile away from the blast, Michiko watched her neighborhood transform into a fiery, corpse-ridden obstacle course, an experience which she later described as “living hell” (Cook & Cook 384, 385).

While Smitherman and Michiko emerged from these nuclear experiences with a common status—that of nuclear survivor— how did each individual construct their own unique identity around this label? Their respective identities, as atomic veteran and hibakusha, informed their understanding of the world around them, producing two distinct models of victimhood. While Smitherman’s account is indisputably different from Michiko’s, by understanding himself as both an atomic veteran and hibakusha, he demonstrates that these identities are not necessarily restricted to one region, culture, or nuclear incident. Instead, the term hibakusha has come to imply membership in a “collective identity” of nuclear survivors spanning the globe.

In “The Origins of ‘Hibakusha’ as a Scientific and Political Classification of the Survivor,” Akiko Naono states that the term contains multiple layers of meaning. As a result, it is envisioned in terms of “concentric circles,” in which each region translates to the degree of distress that the atomic bomb inflicted on an individual. Terkel names a few of these categories, such as those in the immediate vicinity, people irradiated after the bombing, and even unborn children exposed to radiation (Terkel 536). These categories reflect the original, strict definition of the term hibakusha, which was codified into law in the postwar period. On account of this legal classification, victims of the bombing were ostensibly afforded certain privileges, described as “relief medical assistance,” as long as they could demonstrate that they had actually experienced the attack (Cook & Cook 384).

As her narrative in Japan at War indicates, Yamaoka Michiko could pass even the most stringent legal test to be considered a hibakusha. At fifteen, she and her highschool peers had been assigned to work at a local office managing phone communications (384). On the day of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Michiko was heading towards her office (less than a half mile away from the explosion’s center) when she was slammed by the force and heat of the explosion (384). Michiko recalls that before being saved by her mother, she ran into a friend trying to escape the post-bomb carnage; she specifically notes that in that one interaction, this friend became the first person, but not the last, to call Michiko “a monster” (384, 386).

This serves as the first example of the ways in which Michiko’s new identity as a hibakusha transformed her relationships with society, the government, and America. Michiko describes feeling almost sympathetic after learning that her mother had once tried to kill her, and goes on to describe the hatred she endured at the hands of her peers and family members for her appearance and condition (386). Family, she indicates, worried that her ailment was contagious, contributing to a quarantine environment that defined early life as hibakusha (386). Michiko demonstrates that in her experience, being a hibakusha ostracized her from society; this suggests that while the label was simultaneously inclusive (encompassing victims of the bomb into a developing “community of suffering”) it also served to de-integrate her from society as she had previously known it. In The Good War, Terkel notes that this experience was shared by many other hibakusha, and that even today relatives of people who were victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be discriminated against (Terkel 540).

While bomb victims were eventually given privileges by the government, multiple sources indicate that the Japanese state’s lack of general support led to a tense relationship with the hibakusha. Michiko states that in the years directly after the war, the Japanese government barely distinguished between those affected by the atomic bomb and those affected by other forms of violence; she says that as a result, “no support or treatment” was made easily available to her (Cook & Cook 386). This suggests that while the Japanese government made small efforts to help those hurt by the atomic bomb, it did not do very much—beyond legally classifying these citizens—to cultivate the sense of identity that would form among hibakusha later. Akiko Naono remarks that this only occurred once people applied pressure to the government in response to a later nuclear incident (after the entire crew of a Japanese fishing expedition were irradiated by an American weapon test in 1954), suggesting that Japan became increasingly sensitive to the hibakusha identity over time.

In Japan at War, Shin Bok Su offers a different account of the ways in which the Japanese government limited their definition of hibakusha to exclude non-ethnic Japanese people. While she and her husband were from Korea, Bok Su comments that they felt fully integrated into Japanese society by the time war started (Cook & Cook 388). When Hiroshima was attacked in 1945, the aftermath of the bombing left Bok Su struggling with few resources and the loss of most of her immediate family (388, 389). However, even with this being the case, her application to receive the resources allotted to bomb victims was denied on account of her identity as “a foreigner” (388, 389). Bok Su’s account suggests that even among the people who qualified as hibakusha in terms of suffering, there was a racial hierarchy that barred certain individuals from accessing the little reprieve this label (as a legal designation) was supposed to offer.

Transitioning from national to international politics, Yamaoka Michiko’s account suggests that her identity as a hibakusha defined her posture towards America even later in life. She describes being transported to America for “treatment and plastic surgery” as a part of a group called the “Hiroshima Maidens” (387). In this segment of her account, she makes multiple statements that offer insight into how her status as a hibakusha defined her perspective on America. Most significantly, she acknowledges that she “had a deep hatred towards America;” while she recognizes that the U.S. argued that it sought to accelerate the war by using the atomic bomb, she feels that “inexcusable to harm human beings in this way” (387). As opposed to the complex relationship with blame that emerges in John Smitherman’s account of witnessing the detonation of atomic bombs, Michiko’s identity as a hibakusha continuously informed an adversarial posture towards America even into the 1960s (387).

However, Michiko roots this posture in the atomic bomb itself, indicating that her identity as a victim directly informed her opposition to nuclear weapons going forward. This is consistent with Naono’s notion that over time, to be a hibakusha was not just to be a victim, but also an activist, specifically against nuclear weapons. As her account indicates, Michiko incorporated this non-proliferation and disarmament stance into the way she expressed her identity as a hibakusha

Yamaoka Michiko’s story offers insight into one paradigm, or one experience, of a hibakusha. Additionally, her identity informed and defined her relationships with the world, state, and society; while isolating, these relationships may have motivated her (in terms of non-proliferation) and supported her (regarding state benefits).To Michiko, her identity as a hibakusha came to transcend victimhood, even though she always remained cognizant of the perpetrator.

In her article “Radiation Suffering and Patriotic Body Politics,” Natasha Zaretsky offers insight into a political posture similar to Michiko’s that developed in the United States at about the same time: the American “antiwar” activist. Like Michiko’s, this posture critiqued the United States on the basis of its imperialism and lack of principle, honing in on nuclear weapons themselves as evil. Michiko shared the movement’s concern for morality, as evidenced by her statement that no matter the accelerated outcome of the war, America had caused unforgivable damage by using the bomb (Cook & Cook 387). Michiko’s experience as a nuclear survivor, therefore, facilitated and informed her politics.

For John Smitherman, his experience as a nuclear survivor informed a different political stance, rooted in what Zaretsky describes as “patriotic body politics.” While both Michiko and Smitherman are nuclear survivors, his self-identification as an atomic veteran highlights the differences between their experiences. While the term atomic veteran seems to suggest that Smitherman fought against nuclear weapons, his account in The Good War illustrates that his role in the navy was to facilitate their development. In his book Atomic Doctors, James Nolan discusses the objective of “Operation Crossroads,” the 1946 series of atomic bomb tests in the Pacific where Smitherman was stationed as a young adult. As Nolan frames it, the U.S. navy initiated Operation Crossroads in order to reassert its value and counter the growing dominance of the American army; Nolan quotes scientist Albert S. Cahn as stating: “‘This isn’t a test of atomic power. This is a demonstration for power by the Navy.’” In addition to being motivated by intra-departmental politics, Nolan illustrates that military leadership ignored all concerns regarding radiation until it was too obvious to ignore. Even though he later realized that safety personnel were present and constantly measuring the levels of radiation, Smitherman himself states that the crew were never informed about the risks: “in fact, radiation was never mentioned the whole time we were there” (Terkel 548). Even when the bombs were detonated, personnel like Smitherman were asked to quell fires on recently irradiated ships (547). Months later, Smitherman began suffering from recurring sores that eventually caused him to be medically discharged; later in life these issues resulted in his loss of both legs through amputation, and finally, a cancer diagnosis (548, 549).

These experiences as a soldier and a victim informed Smitherman’s nuanced posture towards the United States. Like Michiko, Smitherman suffered from the state’s unwillingness to service his needs.This is embodied in his discussion of the Veterans Affairs Department, which not only refused to compensate him, but consistently downplayed the roots of his diagnosis (549). However, after each condemnation he absolved the guilty party of their sins, stating “I forgive ‘em” (549). He even says that (health permitting) he would represent America again at war, suggesting that unlike Michiko, Smitherman understood himself as a victim of negligence, not violence (549).

This perspective can be situated within Zaretsky’s analysis of atomic veterans in the 1970s. As opposed to her model of the anti-war activist, she suggests that atomic veterans actually affirmed America’s foreign policy. They identified as “sickened patriots;” while they had acted out of loyalty and citizenship, it was the state that had “betrayed” them, and therefore the mission as a whole. Smitherman invokes this same sentiment at multiple points in his narrative. Alongside his comments about going to war for America again, he also stops at one point to ponder if he himself was to blame for his predicament, before concluding “I don’t believe that I was wrong. I did what I was told to do while I was in the service” (Terkel 553). While he had fulfilled his responsibility, Smitherman argues that the government had not fulfilled its “duty” (533). In order to communicate this, Smitherman draws on a metaphor of dogs in a cage, arguing that the owner of the violent dogs (or nuclear weapons) is responsible for the damage they cause (533). His statement implies that the dogs were poorly handled and the damage was never accounted for. However, in his chapter “Managing Radiation and the Radiation Narrative,” James Nolan indicates that the priorities of the Armed Forces took precedence over human safety, and as a result they engaged in a spin campaign to moderate outside awareness of the risks involved with radiation. Unlike Michiko’s narrative, which denies the value of nuclear weapons, Smitherman assumes their presence, placing emphasis instead on the wrongdoing of the owner for not preventing, mitigating, or responding to the issue. 

For Smitherman and Michiko, their experiences as nuclear survivors informed very different worldviews. Considering this divergence, is it possible to understand them within the same class of nuclear survivor? As John Smitherman’s condition worsened and the VA continued not being able to meet his needs, he was invited to Japan to undergo the life-changing radiation treatments that the nation pioneered in the wake of the atomic bombs (Terkel 550-551). While it did not save his life, Smitherman came away with a deep respect for the Japanese people, and a new label bestowed upon him—“hibakisha (sic) (551). By referring to him as such, the hibakusha he met in Japan incorporated him into their continuously expanding, multilayered understanding of what the term meant. An explication of atomic veteran in the context of Smitherman and hibakusha in the context of Michiko suggests that beyond their distinct physical experiences with nuclear weapons and their effects, each individual extracted a unique political message from their experience as well.

In a separate account in The Good War, Hajimi Kito describes a fundamental tenet that shaped his identity as a hibakusha: his belief “that the people who died are calling upon us survivors not to make a meaningless waste out of their deaths” (540). In both of their narratives, Michiko and Smitherman allude to their own ways of trying to make their past suffering meaningful for future generations. Smitherman did this in his capacity as leader of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, through which he sought support for his fellow veterans and their families in the future (546, 550, 554). Michiko, on the other hand, describes her experience shepherding youth through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, stating that while they hear her talk, she worries that they don’t understand the message she is communicating (Cook & Cook 384). Both accounts promote a message of awareness, suggesting that despite all the different factors that shaped their identities as nuclear survivors, similar qualities underpinned both Michiko and Smitherman’s activism.John Smitherman’s identity as an atomic veteran was informed by a sense of what was owed, while Yamaoka Michiko’s identity as a hibakusha was informed by a notion of right and wrong. Present at different blasts, affected in physically different ways, and residents of different countries, they expressed their identities differently over the course of their life. However, demonstrated by John Smitherman’s ability to be both a hibakusha and atomic veteran, Michiko and Smitherman existed within a shared “community of suffering,” which worked to translate pain into some sort of message for future generations.

Photo on left: Michiko Yamaoka in 1993 by Trevor Corson

Photo on right: John Smitherman, Atomic Veteran by Robert Del Tredici, from Coping With Nuclear Waste, Stockholm 27-29 April 2007

Theo Bammi is a Georgetown undergraduate, pursuing a Government major and Statistics minor. His academic interests include political theory, law, and the intersection of public policy and data analysis. Outside the classroom, Theo enjoys DJing and learning about the music industry.

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