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Nuclear Weapons

The Gendered Impacts of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki Bombings

by Jasmine Owens
July 09, 2020

Female survivors of the atomic bombings experienced greater instances of illness and death.  And, they faced harsher societal discrimination after the bombings.

There was a lot of confusion about the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radiation poisoning began soon after the bombs were dropped. People were experiencing hair loss, bleeding gums, and high fevers among other symptoms. Many were dying. But very few understood what was happening.

Sick person cared for by a nurse

An atomic bomb survivor receives a treatment at a temporary hospital set at Shin Kozen Elementary School on September 23, 1945, in Nagasaki, Japan.

Yasuo Tomishige/The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The American government began its investigation into the bombings immediately after Japan surrendered. Right away, it denied that what the Japanese people were experiencing was due to radiation. They brushed off atomic bombs as no different than any other bomb in the American arsenal. General Leslie Groves even claimed that radiation sickness was Japanese propaganda and if anyone did happen to die of such a cause, it was a pleasant way to die.

General Leslie Groves even claimed that radiation sickness was Japanese propaganda and if anyone did happen to die of such a cause, it was a pleasant way to die.

Word started to spread about the dangerous effects of atomic bombs. The American government implemented the Press Code, a censorship code limiting what journalists were allowed to print about the bombings. This code was finally lifted in 1952 with the establishment of the San Francisco Treaty, returning sovereignty to Japan.

Even though the press was not allowed to report on it, the atomic bomb survivors, known as "Hibakusha," continued to experience the effects of radiation, especially women. The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) was created in 1947 to research the long-term effects of radiation on Hibakusha. The ABCC was later replaced by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in 1975. The results of the study found that women were two times more likely to develop solid cancers due to radiation exposure than men. This was due to radiation exposure resulting in more sex-specific cancers, like breast cancer. The study also concluded the younger people were exposed to radiation, the more likely they were to die from cancer. Especially young girls who were two times more likely to develop cancer than their male counterparts.

Young girl receives medical care

A victim of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima being examined by A.B.C.C.

Carl Mydans/Getty Images

Other studies found even more evidence. One study discovered that their exposure to radiation resulted in increases in stillbirths, miscarriages, premature birth, birth defects and growth disorders. Another study found that radiation exposure was accelerating menopause.

The ABCC did little to assist Hibakusha. The Commission examined them but refused to treat them. More often than not, the ABCC would blame Hibakusha’s health issues on socioeconomic factors like poverty.

Hibakusha also faced social stigma. Because no one really understood how radiation worked, many feared it and anyone it affected. As a result, Hibakusha were deemed social pariahs in Japanese society. They were refused housing and food. They were denied access to public places and job opportunities.

girls with parasols and face masks

This photo dated 1948 shows children wearing masks to protect themselves from radiation in the devastated city of Hiroshima nearly three years after the U.S. bombing of the city, August 6, 1945. Around 135,000 people died in Hiroshima, with another 80,000 people perishing in the bomb dropped over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Countless thousands of others died in the years following from radiation-induced illness.

STF/Getty Images

But female Hibakusha faced the harshest discrimination. There are records of women feeling violated as they were examined by foreign scientists in the ABCC. Before the atomic bombings, women were already believed to be “polluted” due to their reproductive roles. Now, with the so-called impurity of radiation exposure, women were seen as doubly contaminated and increasingly discriminated against. They were blamed for instances of sterility and any birth defects their children had. They were blamed for leukemia, which was seen as a “female” disease. All of these factors led to female Hibakusha labeled as less desirable for marriage. They were seen as unfit to marry and have children. This was difficult to deal with in a society that placed a lot of a woman’s value on her ability to achieve these milestones.

There was no way to know the long term effects of the bomb, nor that it would disproportionately affect female Hibakusha. But rather than accept the dangers of radiation exposure and work to help the Hibakusha, the U.S. government chose to bury any evidence of the dangers and blamed the Hibakusha for their health issues in its pursuit of nuclear supremacy.

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