In the spring of 1945, Michiko Yoshitsuka was 14 years old. She had just begun her third year at Hiroshima Jogakuin, one of the many girls schools in the heart of the city, when her life took an unexpected turn.
“I still remember those horrific, wretched scenes in Hiroshima, and I think only the survivors know just how horrific and wretched they were.”
Michiko wrote those words in her diary, which was recently translated into English by her granddaughter and me.
As school principals protested, Hiroshima extended the National Mobilization Law to include all 12- to 15-year-olds. Michiko, along with the students in Hiroshima’s many city center girls schools, was now required to join Japan’s war effort.
Michiko Yoshitsuka (right) was a 14-year-old schoolgirl working in a munitions factory when the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. | COLIN INNES
Every morning, she took a train across the city — from the western district of Yokogawa to the Toyo Kogyo factory, 5 kilometers east of the center. In the building now known as the Mazda factory, Michiko made weapons for the Imperial Japanese Army.
Factory life was hard. The girls struggled with the powerful lathes, and some suffered severe injuries. Others lost their lives through diseases like tuberculosis.
Yet Michiko was luckier than the first- and second-year students at her school who worked in the center of Hiroshima, in the heat of the summer sun, pulling down buildings to create firebreaks.
One warm, cloudless morning, shortly after 7 a.m., an air-raid siren sounded across Hiroshima. Michiko woke and, without knowing it, made a life-or-death decision.
“On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, I overslept. … I remember thinking, ‘I can make it to work on time if I get the later train, but I still might catch my usual train if I run to the station.’ I ran to Yokogawa station … and I jumped on my usual train in the nick of time.”
At 8:15 a.m., the moment the bomb was dropped, Michiko was safely inside the factory. The Toyo Kogyo buildings were protected by Hijiyama, the high hill between Hiroshima and nearby Fuchu. If Michiko had missed her usual train, she would have died near the city center, along with many first- and second-year Hiroshima Jogakuin students.
Michiko headed for Nakayama Pass, the mountain path leading to her relatives’ house in Gion.
“There were wounded people everywhere. I saw scores of people whose bodies lay burnt and festering, whose eyeballs had popped out from the wind pressure produced by the explosion, or whose internal organs protruded from their bodies and mouths,” Michiko wrote in her diary.
On this unfamiliar path, in this unfamiliar setting, Michiko made slow progress. When night fell, she was still on the Nakayama Pass.
“As I walked along, someone suddenly grabbed my ankle and begged, ‘Young lady, could you give me some water?’ I brushed away the hand — I could not make out whether it was a male’s or female’s — and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ I was filled with fear and walked on to escape.”
The following day, she reached the Gion district of Hiroshima, where her mother was waiting. But she had no time to recover.
“From Aug. 7, for about 10 days, my mother and I walked around Hiroshima and its suburbs, asking after my older brother, who was a soldier. We later found out from the Imperial Japanese Army’s 5th division that he had died near the epicenter. … My brother’s remains were never found.”
By the time Michiko Yoshitsuka was 20, she was married and had already given birth to one child, who died shortly after being born. | COLIN INNES
Illness and isolation
Shortly after finishing her search, Michiko fell ill. Her symptoms were becoming familiar to the doctors still in the city.
“I began to display the symptoms of radiation sickness. … I had a high fever, I was bleeding from my gums and my nose, I had severe diarrhea, my hair was falling out and purple spots had begun to appear all over my body. I was put into isolation in the shed of a family friend, and I lingered on the verge of death. Everyone around me thought I would die, but, miraculously, I survived.”
After months in isolation, Michiko returned to school. Her classes were taught at a temporary site in the Ushita district while her school was being rebuilt. Some things could not be rebuilt though; at Hiroshima Jogakuin alone, more than 350 students and teachers lost their lives.
“In March 1947, at the age of 16, I graduated from my high school. In 1948, at the age of 18, I got married.”
Unlike many female victims who faced undesirable marriage prospects, Michiko got married, but misfortune soon followed.
“In April 1949, I gave birth to a baby girl. But she died two weeks later. On April 14, 1964, my mother died of cancer. In my family, I was left alone. … My mother had been receiving a war bereavement allowance. The government withdrew this, however, following my mother’s death.”
With no state support, two children to provide for and a husband who spent more time with his mistress than he did with her, Michiko struggled. She was plagued by exhaustion, as were many who survived radiation sickness. But when she finally divorced her husband, she found work as a hostess in a traditional Japanese restaurant, putting on her kimono each evening and serving customers late into the night.
Surviving the greatest adversity
Michiko rarely spoke about the Hiroshima bombing, but when she did, she hinted at its lifelong effects. She told how, decades later, she saw a fireball come through the window of a house, a hallucination that triggered memories of the fire-ravaged city. And she talked about the voice that haunted her, begging for water on the Nakayama Pass.
“I will never be able to erase from my memory the sound of that voice.”
Yet Michiko survived. She survived the most destructive single act committed by mankind. And, when she died in 2012, she was survived by two children and four grandchildren. I met one of her grandchildren when I lived in Hiroshima, and together, years later, we translated these diaries. They speak of the human capacity to endure the greatest adversity and build a life again. As she herself wrote in her final diary entry in 1995:
“Now, on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, I sense afresh the preciousness of life.”