More than 65 years after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are still thousands of people suffering. In addition to experiencing lingering effects from the radiation, many are also considered social outcasts.
The term hibakusha in Japanese means “explosion-covered people” and applies to anyone who came within 2 kilometers (approximately 1.25 miles) of the hypocenter of the bomb — within two weeks of the explosion. Thought to be diseased and contagious, many people hid their experience from friends, family and society at large to avoid being shunned.
Photographer Peter Blakely calls these people “silent survivors” and sought to bring their stories to light through a series of portraits and interviews.
Blakely, an American photographer living in Japan, was raised on various U.S. Air Force bases. That experience got him thinking about the effects of war in a critical way.
“I am not trying to find fault, but to remember what horror war is and give voice to its victims,” he said via email.
In one emotional interview session, he sat with a woman in tears who shared her story with her sister for the first time since 1945. She had never told her own family of her experience, for fear of being labeled a hibakusha.
Blakely says that the same sort of discrimination is happening to people who were exposed to radiation in Fukushima.
“Kids are being bullied and having troubles; the parents can’t find jobs, they get shunned. And it’s a very quiet kind of shunning,” he said.
He is exploring that story in an ongoing project called Facing Fukushima.
“Hopefully one day we as humankind will understand that regardless of our nationality, race, religion or politics we are more alike than different,” he said.
Excerpt from Miyoko Watanabe’s story, as told to Peter Blakely in 2005:
“It looked as if the gas tanks in Minami-machi on the other side of the river had exploded. The flash was a yellowish orange color, just like magnesium light but hundreds of times stronger. I instinctively rushed back into the house and laid myself down on my stomach as I had been trained in evacuation drills. It became dark and there were ghastly crashing and rattling sounds. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but when I came to and opened my eyes. … I felt relieved to find myself alive. At the same time I was stricken with horror. Outside, I found the clear, blue sky had turned dim as if it were at dusk. … The place was filled with an indescribable smell. I looked back at my house to see if my mother was all right. Her hair was a mess and standing on end; her lips were cracked and her head bleeding; she stood there like some unearthly creature. … It is not easy for me to talk about my experience as an A-bomb survivor. For me it is like airing my dirty linen in public. But here I am to talk to you.”