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  • Writer's pictureAayushi Sharma

78 years on : a gendered lens to the legacies of the Hibakusha

78 years have passed since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as the stories of the Hibakusha live on, can we apply a gendered lens to understand the impact of the event?

6th August marks the anniversary of the first-ever use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict in the history of the world. The event changed the trajectory of modern warfare forever and atomic weapons not only became the most effective tools of negotiations during conflicts but also became a source of the projection of state power and a symbol for a nation’s prosperity and might. This symbolism primarily contributed to the arms race that followed the immediate use of nuclear weapons by the United States of America on Japan. The whole world turned its eyes to the US and thus started a ripple effect of states developing nuclear warfare capacities and technologies in the name of maintaining peace and security.


The bombs that were dropped to ‘end a war’ created possibly the largest mass casualty in an armed conflict. The bombings resulted in an estimated death toll of about 140,000 in Hiroshima and 74000 in Nagasaki and the survivors of the attacks bear the consequences of the attack even today.


Decades after the bombings, the era of the nuclear weapons arms race is once again a reality. The legal instruments of arms control between the two states with the highest number of nuclear weapons arsenals have been rendered obsolete and with Russia using nuclear weapons threats as a strategic position in its conflict against Ukraine, the future of international peace and security remains precarious.


In this position, it becomes all the more important to pay attention to the human cost of nuclear weapons usage and 6th August serves as a reminder of this.


The stories and testimonies of the Hibakusha have worked towards building an international movement against the usage of these weapons resulting in legal instruments and treaties like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) or the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

The testimonies of the Hibakusha are real-life accounts of large-scale and intergenerational impacts of the usage of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts and present a reality that the current international discourse seems to be ignoring at will. The devastating history of nuclear weapons usage has another dimension to it, one that will serve to develop a new lens of viewing nuclear weapons policy as well.


As we delve deeper into the stories of the Hibakusha and understand the impacts that they have survived to tell the tale of the most devastating attacks in the history of human warfare, there is also a need to dissect these impacts further in order to build a more comprehensive discourse towards the goal of disarmament itself. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more than mere bombs dropped by one state on another, the effects of these attacks lingered on for decades after and manifested in the physical and psychological impacts, the stories of the Hibakusha are a testament to this fact.


Applying a gendered lens


Can we use a gendered approach to understanding the effects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and by extension, can there be an analysis into the gendered impacts of the exposure to nuclear radiation?


Research into the immediate impacts of higher levels of radiation and even in the case of low levels of ionizing radiation as a result of the bombings suggested that women faced a greater threat to life and carried the physical burdens of the exposure in the form of long-term illnesses and diseases. A lifespan study on the survivors of the Hibakusha suggested that the risk of developing cancers as a result of exposure to ionizing radiation was almost twice as higher in women than in men. This is primarily because of the kinds of cancers that are likely to develop due to this exposure like breast cancer. Among other symptoms, miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, birth defects, genital mutations and growth disorders are the ones primarily affecting the women of the population. Studies also found that radiation effects lead to premature menopause.


Figure 1: Impacts of exposure to ionizing radiation among men and women


The graph above depicts the findings of a study conducted by the Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation. These findings suggest that women are at a higher risk to develop all solid cancers upon exposure to ionizing radiation.


When it comes to the effects of the attack on the Hibakusha, they go beyond the physical illnesses and the gendered impacts can be seen through the social and psychological effects of the bombings.

The Hibakusha were also socially stigmatized on the grounds of being exposed to radiation and this influenced the social hierarchy based on gender as well. This is because the women, bore the brunt of this stigmatization the most as they were termed unfit for marriage and the adverse effects on the reproductive health of women made matters worse. Reports also suggest that the women and young girls exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation were ‘violated’ during examinations by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) devised in 1947 to understand the effects of the event on the people of Japan.


A cultural analysis of Japan’s society at the time of World War II would make it easier to understand the social impacts of the bombings on the women who were directly exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation.


In this context, it is also important to understand that even though the physical and psychological impacts may differ based on gender and cultural considerations, the usage of nuclear weapons will pose an indiscriminate threat to the whole population being exposed irrespective of their gender or nationality. The impacts of weapons of mass destruction do not adhere to devised boundaries and nationalities.


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