The Hiroshima Survivors Who Hid Radiation Exposure Because People Thought It Was Contagious

August 6 marks 75 years since the U.S. detonated the world's first atomic weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 90,000 to 120,000 people. When the uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped, it triggered a blast, fireball and the release of radioactive ionizing rays.

Those who survived came away with their lives, but went on to endure discrimination amid false fears they could pass on diseases linked to radiation exposure.

Yuka Kamite, associate professor in the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hiroshima University studies the psychological effects on the children and grandchildren of A-bomb survivors. She told Newsweek that some people known as hibakusha, or A-bomb survivors, were denied employment. Others had offers of marriage refused. Hibakusha also hid their experiences from their children for fear people would not want to marry them knowing their parents' history.

"False rumors were spread, like an epidemic," she said. "Those who had keloids on their bodies sometimes wore long sleeves to cover up their scars, even in the middle of summer."

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Picture dated 1948 showing children wearing masks in the hope it would protect thems from irradiation in the city of Hiroshima after the U.S. nuclear bombing of the city. STF/AFP via Getty Images

The effects of radiation are not contagious. But some wrongly believed the hibakusha had transmissible diseases, and their children would be born with disabilities, the daughter of one victim told PRI's The World.

Nakatani Etsuko's father returned to the city the day after the bombing to check on the school where he taught, and suffered radiation poisoning. Etsuko, who was 69 years old when she spoke to The World last year, was born four years after the incident, but her father worried about her health. There is no evidence that children born after the tragedy were more likely to fall ill. However, Etsuko never married because she was scared her children would be sick.

Another survivor, Michiko Kodama, was 7 years old when the bomb hit, and didn't sustain any major injuries, she told Science. When she graduated from school, she struggled to find a job. In her early 20s when a man introduced her to his family, his mother told Kodama they couldn't marry because she was a hibakusha. She later married and had two daughters. Her status continued to blight her, with the mother of daughter's boyfriend saying they couldn't marry because of Kodama's past.

"People said hibakusha had the blood of the devil," Kodama said.

According to Kamite, the emotional trauma the survivors endured manifested itself in many ways in the home, the most common form being avoidance.

Etsuko, for instance, said her father rarely spoke of his experiences, although he did once share there were so many dead bodies in the river, you couldn't see the water.

Many survivors did not speak of what they went though, partly due to fears they would face discrimination, and also because this is a symptom of trauma, said Kamite. "I think that the survivor's guilt caused the hibakusha to suffer in the long term.

"In particular, [the] failure to respond to cries for help or to leave someone behind gave them a sense of guilt. These feelings of guilt prevented survivors from recalling or recounting their experiences."

However, in recent years some survivors who have been silent about it have begun to talk about their experiences, said Kamite. They aim to raise awareness of the horrors of the bombing, and to prevent similar devastation.

Lee Jongkeun, a survivor from Korea who lived in Hiroshima, didn't share his story until he was 83 because he feared intolerance. He told NHK he moved to Hiroshima when he was two years old. The bomb hit when he was a teenager, and after a long recovery process, he returned to work. But he was forced to quit because he was a hibakusha.

He recently told the Associated Press: "A nuclear weapons ban is the starting point for peace. All lives are equal."

Mr Lee said: "As someone who has faced harsh discrimination, that's the other lesson I want to pass on to younger people."

Despite Kodama's experience, it appears the discrimination the hibakusha faced may be ebbing away, according to Kamite. Over the course of her research, she said she has not met any second-generation hibakusha who encountered prejudice. They only heard about the stigma from the past, she said.

"I believe that discrimination against hibakusha has not been carried over to the next generation," said Kamite.