Perceptions of Death and Memories of Atomic Bomb Survivors

The study analyzed how Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors handled grief and challenged perceptions of death.

“How do you mourn the loss of someone?” It’s a question not often asked, nor are the answers explored. However, acquiring this understanding plays an important part in preserving the history created by our predecessors.

A study conducted in June and July of 2018 by a collaboration between the University of Michigan, Nagasaki University, and the Prefectural University of Hiroshima, on 12 individuals, ranging from 18-90 years old, four of whom identified as first-generation survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings (hibakusha), handled grief and how they challenged perceptions of death via how their memories of the deceased were communicated to and maintained for current and future generations.

Through a 26-question Miyabayashi Grief Measurement Survey, participants were askedabout several topics relating to their grief: mood stability, adaptive effort, cherished reminiscence, alienated feelings, and especially, public memorialization such as commemorative events, visiting grave sites and the like.

The Miyabayashi Grief Measurement Survey. Source:

Some context before going into what the researchers found: Obon is a week-long celebratory mourning holiday period in the summer, where Japanese citizens return to their childhood homes and communities to pay homage to those who have passed. This is the main opportunity in which grieving can take place, but as you will see later, current attitudes toward it vary, suggesting old, routine engagement with cultural practices may not suit everyone these days.

Kumiko, a hibakusha, echoed this sentiment when she was asked why Obon was important for Japanese people. She couldn’t immediately come up with an answer. Marika, a second generation survivor in her 70s, also agreed that it was a repetitive occurrence and not so meaningful to her life.  Motoki, 35, had a similar thought, saying that mourning passed loved ones outside of Obon (and other similar periods) wasn’t significant to him—scheduled times of grieving were enough. Examples of such times in Japan include events like a publicly broadcast moment of silence on the TV or annual events at memorial parks. 

In contrast to the unimportant stance, Yumi, another hibakusha, disagrees. she visits her sickly late husband’s gravesite and conducts cultural rituals, reflecting on her regret for not having taken better care of him, being cited as saying “Now I don’t feel so strongly but for a long time, I felt like I should have looked after him better, even though I was trying to do my best at the time, things kept getting in the way. And I say thank you for keeping me healthy through his protection, always.”

Hiro, too, a 19-year-old student, said that through the older members of his family, he was able to feel that there’s a sense of comfort in talking with people who knew the passed loved ones because these days, after 5 or 10 years, folks aren’t as diligent. This is demonstrated by a mental hiccup called SSRIF: socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting. Simply put, surviving families selectively recall (and forget) those foggy details, accepting others’ altered versions of events. This prompts a conflicting second suggestion: communicating grief, however skewed, and embracing a sense of connectedness is in fact always accessible. Knowing you’re not alone in grief is invaluable and all participants in the study assuredly expressed their hope and belief that their ancestors are protecting them. They firmly agreed that, yes, feeling connected is a perk, but if it weren’t for the deceased, they wouldn’t have existed to tell their stories and maintain the deceased’s memories. Such feelings of gratitude are amplified during scheduled periods of grieving, such as Obon.

A third example of how the participants dealt with their grief and mourning was mentioned previously: engaging with memorial sites. This proved especially important overall within the study; essential even, when the atomic bombings were taken into account. Never will either of these cities forget and forever will they continue to be shaped by the trauma. Again, you can see the overall theme of connectedness, as they could instill personal awareness and knowledge not only within themselves, but within visitors to the areas. This also allowed even more access to opportunities in which memories could be aired and grieving could take place. 

Within the knowledge and personal awareness being explored, Akihiro, a minister with a local Christian church in Nagasaki, explained he uses his time to bring to light those who are often left out of the narratives, like Chinese, Koreans, and various other foreigners affected not only by the bombings, but by the political atmosphere of the time as Japan made its own malicious moves. Akihiro even extended his thoughts to those involved in bringing Christianity to the country by visiting Sakamoto International Cemetery, established in 1888.

Sakamoto International Cemetery. Source:

 A resident named Tohru also visited Sakamoto as a volunteer to record hibakusha stories, thus learning more about the history of Nagasaki and how foreigners’ lives were changed Furthermore, Hiro confirmed that though students can’t begin to imagine what it was like in those times, there is still a sense of importance taught and fostered in children at an early age regarding it all, and with Marika, praying at the hypocenter felt more authentic. Both cases illustrate the effect of societal norms, and by extension jobs and/or roles, via planned and routine activities. 

Koharu, a woman in her 70s not directly related to the bombings and living in Hiroshima, supports the current example in her commitment to recording deaf survivor accounts. “They [deaf atomic bombing survivors] often tell me about their experience of the atomic bomb without being able to hear anything,” she’s cited as saying.

The study found that two other points that assisted the participants in their perceptions of death: mourning as party people, like during Shorongashi, an event held to joyously send off the dead, and enjoy activities that reminded them of the dearly departed. These two allowed the individuals another easily accessible method where public displays of grief were otherwise looked down on. Tomohiro, a teacher, and Hinata, an 80-year-old woman, both recall their specific loved ones and how they include them in their daily lives (cherished reminiscence), like listening to music or cooking with their recipes.

Interestingly, Izumi, another hibakusha, gave a contrasting argument by talking about her mother and how she’d storm into neighbors’ houses to tell them off about things that weren’t her business. Izumi would be left to go and apologize. Though still remembered, unhappy memories seem to reinforce that pesky selective mental hiccup talked about earlier, SSRIF.

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Whether it’s abiding only by specifically planned times, dates, or events, public or individualmethods, taking a moment to remember the ones the 12 participants lost is reflective of how connected they felt. All methods were publicly accessible and all played a role in maintaining the legacies left behind. So, the next time you’re feeling a wave of nostalgia, revel in it and hold dear the memory you’re keeping alive.

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