Hiroshima and the World: The Wisdom of Survivors

by Dr. Robert Jay Lifton

Robert Jay Lifton
Dr. Lifton is an eminent American psychiatrist, born in Brooklyn, New York in May 1926. He is Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at The City University of New York. His many publications include: Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (winner of a National Book Award); Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (with Greg Mitchell); and Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism (with Richard Falk).

The Wisdom of Survivors

I’m very pleased to inaugurate the Hiroshima Peace Media Center’s important new series on “Hiroshima and the World.” From the beginning I looked upon my research in Hiroshima as not just a psychological study but a form of witness to what the use of an atomic weapon did to human beings. No other work I have done has been more important to me. And from the time my wife and I arrived there on a clear early spring day in April 1962, Hiroshima has inhabited our minds, indeed our souls, as has no other city. Nowhere else have we felt ourselves in closer alliance with people on behalf of so profound a cause. And in personal terms, I remember the warmth with which a few friends helped us to celebrate our son’s first birthday. After completing the research, I have returned repeatedly to Hiroshima to renew those ties and to continue to learn all I could about the city and its people.

Death in Life, my book on Hiroshima, is about hibakusha, about their extraordinary suffering but also about their special knowledge. When I did the study in 1962, 17 years after the bomb, the raw pain of that experience was still much evident. But I also encountered considerable resilience in survivors able to recover from their ordeal and reclaim their lives. Now in 2009, 47 years after that study and 64 years after the bomb, hibakusha have brought their collective energies to worldwide efforts to combat nuclear danger. They are, of course, an aging population, and we need more than ever to recognize their special combination of pain and wisdom.

The pain has to do with survivors’ lifelong encounter with death: the immediate sea of death at the time of the bomb, the grotesque and often fatal early radiation effects (or what I called “invisible contamination”), and the delayed radiation effects in the form of leukemia and various forms of cancer that occurred decades later and could extend to future generations. As in the case of the most extreme forms of emotional experience, the pain could be literally inexpressible--inchoate. Hence one woman declared to me, “I just cannot put into words the horror I felt.” And Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, a remarkable Hiroshima physician who treated hibakusha and became ill himself, later wrote: “I know of no word or words to describe the view from my twisted iron bed in the fire-gutted ward of the Communications Hospital.” But however spoken or unspoken, hibakusha acquired knowledge of a special dimension of suffering.

That knowledge included an experience close to the end of the world. Only the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have come to know directly the world-destroying nature of nuclear weapons. That was the message of the history professor who expressed to me his shock at looking down from Hijiyama Hill and discovering that “Hiroshima didn’t exist . . . . Hiroshima just didn’t exist!” It was also the sentiment of the physicist who told me: “My body seemed all black, everything seemed dark, dark all over. . . Then I thought, ‘The world is ending.’” This sense of a “nuclear end” is at the heart of the special knowledge hibakusha came to acquire. In contrast to mere intellectual awareness, theirs is a form of bodily wisdom.

My work with hibakusha initiated in me a special interest in survivors in general, in people who have witnessed or come close to death while themselves remaining alive. I was later to work with survivors of Nazi death camps, of the Vietnam War, and of many natural and man-made disasters including the American nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. I came to appreciate the profound truths that only survivors can teach us. As human beings we live on meaning, and survivors come to their truths through the meanings they give to their personal encounter with death. Hibakusha could find meaning in relating their personal experience to the world’s nuclear danger. They could embark on what I call a “survivor mission,” a lifelong commitment to combating the destructive force to which they themselves had been subjected.

For many hibakusha that mission has included a sustained effort to inform the world of terrible nuclear truths, and joining in antinuclear movements everywhere. Such ethical and political activism was already present among hibakusha during my work in Hiroshima in 1962. But since that time it has so expanded that hibakusha have emerged as a major force in shaping international consciousness in relation to nuclear weapons. To be sure, many others have contributed to this process, but none with the moral authority hibakusha can call forth in their words and their very existence. And in doing so, they can overcome feelings of helplessness that frequently affect survivors and reaffirm their sense of worth as individual people.

In that way hibakusha have entered the admirable realm of survivors who draw special forms of wisdom from their death encounter. In a general essay on that subject, “Survivor as Creator,” I described three men who made use of their survivor experience during World War II to bring knowledge to the world: Albert Camus, the French writer, who exposed the murderous psychology of totalitarianism while insisting on remaining a “rebel” against the status quo; Kurt Vonnegut, the American writer, who transformed his experience as an American prisoner of war witnessing the bombing of Dresden into a mocking condemnation of the human proclivity to kill; and Gunter Grass, the German writer and artist, who brought gallows humor to the rendering of Nazi perfidy while making clear that the rest of us were by no means exempt from such impulses.

Hibakusha have also emerged as writers and artists, but their most notable contributions have been more in the social sphere. I have particularly in mind two extraordinary men I was able to interview in 1962. Shinso Hamai, then mayor of Hiroshima, had distinguished himself as a young city official at the time of the bomb by behaving heroically in helping fellow survivors. He played a unique part in the rebirth of Hiroshima and emphasized to me the balance he sought between that city’s making known its “significant experience which should be shared with the world,” on the one hand, and on the other, his forward-looking wish for Hiroshima to become “a city of brightness,” both in its “beautiful surroundings” and in the “inner lives of its citizens.” Ichiro Moritaki had in the past been a philosopher of ethics who strongly supported Japanese militarism. But when severely injured by the bomb and blinded in one eye, he underwent a profound personal change which enabled him to become a leading voice of both political and spiritual protest against nuclear weapons. He would sit zazen-style in front of the cenotaph when any nation anywhere tested the weapons. I was proud to join him on one such occasion (even if my style of sitting lacked zazen discipline). Hamai and Moritaki, along with many other hibakusha, exemplified the principle I put forward in the previously mentioned essay: namely, that “To touch death and then rejoin the living can be a source of insight and power,” and that “the painful wisdom of the survivor can, at least potentially, become universal wisdom.”

What, then, are the dimensions of the wisdom of hibakusha? First, we may point to their knowledge of the most extreme pain, suffering, and loss. Next is their unique understanding of the totality or world-ending destruction brought by nuclear weapons. In addition, they have personal knowledge of the weapons’ invisible contamination in the form of lethal radiation effects. And hibakusha are aware that, with thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, their knowledge has relevance far beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed one hibakusha after another expressed to me their sense of the ultimate absurdity of nations making, testing, and planning the possible use of nuclear weapons.

I can personally attest to the impact of hibakusha wisdom. In the doctors’ movement in which I have been active (Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR] and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War [IPPNW]), our imaginations were anchored in nuclear truths by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as originally conveyed by the experiences of hibakusha. In that way hibakusha contributed greatly to the antinuclear influence of the overall doctors’ movement, including the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to IPPNW in 1985.

We know well the dangers of the stockpiling and proliferation of nuclear weapons. But we need also to recognize the proliferation of antinuclear passions, in which hibakusha extend their painfully acquired wisdom across the globe.

There is reason to believe that many world leaders have begun to respond to that wisdom. Barack Obama, the new American president, has undoubtedly heard the voices of hibakusha in his advocacy of nuclear abolition. The whole world continues to be the beneficiary of the experience and knowledge of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(Originally published on January 3, 2009)

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