Hiroshima Memo: A-bomb microcephalic patients deliver silent denunciation of inhumanity of nuclear weapons

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

"These children will not live to the age of 20," an American doctor of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, or ABCC, (now, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, or RERF), once told their parents, referring to patients with A-bomb microcephaly, who have now reached their mid-60s.

These patients were born with intellectual and physical disabilities due to prenatal exposure to radiation from the atomic bomb. Their parents and family members have undergone hardships beyond description and contended with thoughtless prejudice and discrimination, all the while providing support to these microcephalic children and living with them hand-in-hand. It took 20 years before the presence of these patients became widely known.

The reality of the microcephalic children was first made known in a chapter of a book called "Kono Sekai no Katasumi de" ("In a Corner of the World"), issued by Iwanami Shoten publishing company in 1965. This book revealed the great range of damage caused by the atomic bombings. A local TV reporter, with a bit of information offering clues, visited the houses of A-bomb microcephalic patients for interviews, among other efforts, and compiled his investigation to produce the chapter.

"A children's doctor at ABCC indirectly told me to prepare for the worst, saying, 'It wasn't because of the atomic bomb. Everything was the consequence of malnutrition. I'm sorry, but please consider this the cross that a parent and child must bear, and be kind to your child." (Source: "Kono Sekai no Katasumi de")

Though this mother was told that her child's illness was not caused by the atomic bombing, ABCC later said that they wanted to see the child's school report card as a decline in mental ability seemed to be witnessed in A-bombed children. ABCC even pressed the mother to put her seal to a document on the grounds her seal was needed to obtain the school's permission in order for them to examine the report card. The mother spoke about her outrage at the time to the TV reporter.

"I finally drove them back, telling them, 'You said my child's condition wasn't due to the atomic bombing, so how dare you say this now? Even if my child and I end up dying at the foot of Hijiyama Hill (where ABCC stands), we'll never rely on you.'" (Source: "Kono Sekai no Katasumi de")

"If we have our microcephalic children examined by American experts, we may find a cure." With this wish, as if grasping at straws, the parents cooperated on ABCC's surveys, but ABCC did not provide any medical treatment to their children. Many microcephalic patients and their parents uniformly felt a strong antipathy toward ABCC, which dealt with the patients like guinea pigs.

However, these parents did not know that there were others, beyond their own families, who were suffering in the same situation, and they were unable to share their dissatisfaction and anxiety with others. They did not know where to complain, either. The father of a microcephalic patient who lived near the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, was suffering from hardships and felt at a loss as to what to do. He went so far as to send a letter of appeal to the commanding officer of the station in 1964, saying, "I'm worried about this child's future," and asking for financial support.

The families of microcephalic patients were isolated and were not even informed that the disease was induced by the atomic bombings. However, with this tracking study by the TV reporter as a turning point, "Kinoko Kai," or the "Mushroom Club," was set up about a month before the book was published. Nine patients and their families, as well as journalists, writers, and others in Hiroshima composed the group.

The group had three objectives at the time of its establishment: 1) Persuading the Japanese government to recognize that the microcephaly due to prenatal exposure to radiation was induced by the atomic bombings, 2) gaining assurance of the life-long security of the lives of microcephalic patients, and 3) achieving the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The group, mainly parents of these microcephalic patients, pressed the government so that their children's microcephaly would be listed as a designated disease under the Atomic Bomb Medical Relief Law, and they finally brought about the realization of the objective two years later, in 1967. While the microcephaly was given the name "short-distance early prenatal exposure syndrome," this did not mean that there was a treatment for the disease.

The Mushroom Club has overcome numerous difficulties thanks to the dedicated efforts of the patients' parents and family members, as well as supporters. The group attained its 45th anniversary this past June. Eighteen patients are now involved in the group. "I want to live longer than my child with microcephaly, even if just a day." With the parents who continued to hold this wish dying one after the other, there is an escalating sense of urgency for life-long security that will enable the patients to obtain help for personal care and to seek advice, over and above the existing financial support. With regard to the abolition of nuclear weapons, prospects for that goal cannot yet be seen.

What's more, the United States conducted a subcritical nuclear experiment the other day. The test was aimed at maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and developing a variety of nuclear technologies. But didn't this action contradict the pledge of U.S. President Barack Obama, who vowed to pursue "a world without nuclear weapons"?

I wonder how in the world A-bomb microcephalic patients are perceived by President Obama and political leaders of the other nuclear weapon states. The presence of these microcephalic patients, who even have difficulty comprehending the damage wrought by the atomic bombs, is a silent reminder of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on October 18, 2010)

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