Memories fade as Hiroshima marks 75th anniversary of atomic bombing

‘What frightened me the most was how we got used to the piles of dead bodies’ – survivor

On Thursday, as she has done most days for 75 years, Keiko Ogura will reluctantly remember when Hiroshima was destroyed by a single atomic bomb.

As an eight-year-old child on August 6th, 1945, she witnessed the flash that incinerated her neighbours, then the blast of searing hot wind and sticky black rain that killed thousands more. That night, she watched smoke rise across the city from fires and makeshift crematoriums – her father, a civil defence volunteer, helped burn more than 700 bodies.

Ogura says she does not want to dredge up these memories. “But I feel I must, so we don’t have to experience such things again.”

Hiroshima's annual memorial, marking the moment when an American bomber dropped the "Little Boy" on the city, instantly killing 70,000 people, has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic – but only just. A drastically reduced crowd of dignitaries and elderly survivors, masked and sitting two metres apart, will hear Kazumi Matsui, the city's mayor, again plead for the world to abandon nuclear weapons. His speech this year will have an added ring of desperation.


At 83, Ogura is roughly the average age of the 130,000 hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was destroyed three days later. Most hibakusha, the moral heart of Japan's post-war pacifism and the global anti-nuclear movement, are too old to campaign publicly. Meanwhile, the world drifts further from their ideals, says Prof Tatsujiro Suzuki of the Research Centre for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University.

Nuclear agreements

The administration of US president Donald Trump has abandoned or suspended compliance with a host of nuclear agreements, including the 2015 accord with Iran, designed to contain its nuclear ambitions, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, painstakingly negotiated decades ago to reduce the number of missiles held by America and Russia.

"The role of nuclear weapons is being expanded so that they can be used not only against conventional weapons but against terrorism," says Suzuki. He warns of a new "nuclear arms race".

Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, authorised "the largest expansion of funding on nuclear weapons since the fall of the Soviet Union", said the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a Washington think tank. The $1 trillion splurge puts the world on track for a 21st-century arms race, it warned. Obama also announced a historic build-up of US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region as a hedge against nuclear-armed China.

The Pentagon's Strategic Command, meanwhile, which was charged with obliterating the Soviet Union during the cold war, is trying to determine "whether the Russian and Chinese leadership could survive a nuclear strike and keep operating". The modernisation of US nuclear forces is code for a technological leap, say critics, increasing America's capacity to win a nuclear war.

“This increase in capability is astonishing – boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three,” said a paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. That, in turn, encourages America’s enemies to keep their own fingers on the nuclear trigger, the paper’s authors say.

These new strategic realities leave Japan in something of a bind. Its government has, for decades, paid lip service to the anti-nuclear cause while sheltering under the US defence umbrella. The nation's so-called three non-nuclear principles, formally adopted in 1971, state that Japan shall neither possess nor produce nuclear weapons, nor permit their introduction into Japanese territory.

Backroom deal

Japan's no-nuke rule was undermined by a backroom deal struck between Washington and Tokyo in 1969. The deal allowed nuclear-armed US ships and aircraft to traffic anywhere through or over Japanese territory for decades.

Japan's ambiguous position became painfully clear in 2016 when prime minister Shinzo Abe, shortly after standing alongside Obama on his historic visit to Hiroshima, reportedly expressed "concern" that America was weighing whether or not to end its policy of no first use as a deterrent against North Korea.

The ambiguity was further laid bare a year later, when a global ban on nuclear weapons was approved at the UN headquarters in New York: 122 countries signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Japan, however, stayed away, along with the world's nuclear club – the US, Britain, Russia, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.

Japan's absence from the talks dismayed survivors. Toshiki Fujimori, assistant secretary-general of Nihon Hidankyo, an organisation for atomic bomb victims, said it left him "heartbroken".

Keiko Ogura is still furious. “There is a big gap between the Japanese government and ordinary people and it is growing wider,” she says. She is now among the youngest survivors to remember so clearly what happened 75 years ago. “What frightened me the most was how we got used to the piles of dead bodies. People still ask about our physical scars but it’s the invisible mental scars that remain.”