Keiko Ogura writes me from Japan: "The number of hibakusha is increasing." The Japanese term, which was once used to refer to the atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has come to mean any person poisoned by radiation in nuclear testing, accidents or acts of war.
It will be years before we know the true number of new hibakusha.
Keiko herself is a hibakusha — one of many I interviewed when I lived in Hiroshima in 2001. She was 8 when the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. She saw the black rain. She gave water to the dying. Her father cremated piles of bodies for weeks. She has devoted her life to peace activism, and is the founder and leader of the Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace.
In August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 170,000 people were killed immediately, but the total number of "bomb-affected people" peaked around 380,000. These are people who may not even have appeared sick immediately, but have suffered high rates of cancer, blood disorders, fatigue and other ailments over a period of years. They were not all in the city centers when the bomb was dropped; some came in later to search for family members and help with rescue and cleanup.
What we know about radiation exposure and its effects comes from Japan. The fact that there is so much that is not common knowledge is also Japan's legacy. After the bombs were dropped, pictures and video were censored, confiscated and classified, and news reports limited.
America did not see the charred bodies clogging the rivers, or the people with their skin hanging off like rags. The American and Japanese governments established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to study the immediate and long-term effects in humans, according to age, location and other factors. My great-aunt worked for this organization as file clerk and, sometimes, translator — traveling with the doctors, asking for the bodies of the dead babies. She was very proud to be helping until she realized the data was being classified and medical care was not being provided.
In 1957, the Hibakusha Medical Law allowed for examinations and treatment at the Japanese government's expense. As a result, doctors in Japan have more experience than anywhere else in the world with identifying and managing radiation-related illnesses. They cannot, however, provide a cure. Radiation cannot be healed, nor does it go away.
The official talk about "acceptable radiation levels," as a way to downplay the threat to human health, does not serve anyone. If we downplay the effects of radiation, and change our modeling to allow for higher acceptable levels, as some scientists are calling for, we only desensitize ourselves and put ourselves at greater risk of accidents, fallout from nuclear testing, and the potential use of nuclear weapons in war.
We have already made this mistake once: If we had been able to witness the horrors that the atomic bomb victims suffered, I believe there would have been no public support for the nuclear arms race or for nuclear energy. We must support all the hibakusha, and especially the new ones, by being honest about the effects of radiation on our health.
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir "Hiroshima in the Morning," which was a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards.
© 2011 Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services