Those 'with same scar' find peace at Hiroshima nursing homes

AP , Friday 7 Aug 2015

Kimie Mihara
In this July 3, 2015 photo, Kimie Mihara, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing, participates a chorus at a community center in Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, southern Japan (AP)

Ayako Ishii was 19 and in love for the first time: She was studying the art of flower arranging in Kyoto and fell for her teacher. It was not to be, for the same reason her many subsequent attempts to find love were not to be.

When the man's family found out that Ishii was from Hiroshima, they banned their relationship from developing further.

"There are many things I could have said, but I didn't as my heart was closed and I was resigned," Ishii, now 78, said with a cynical laugh. Beneath her neatly coiffed gray hair, her eyes glittered, as if they were filled with tears.

Even those who survived the Aug. 6, 1945, A-bomb attack on Hiroshima were transformed by it. They were harmed not only physically but mentally, long before post-traumatic stress disorder was even a diagnosis. Many lost relatives — sometimes all of them. They were stigmatized by people fearful that the radiation they were exposed to could cause disease and birth defects.

Many grew old with no one to care for them, which is why Ishii's nursing home, Mutsumi-en or "Garden of Amity," opened in 1970. Now some 600 Hiroshima survivors live in a total of four nursing homes intended just for them.

"This place is where people marked with the same scar huddle together," said Dr. Nanao Kamata, director of the organization that runs the nursing homes and a medical doctor who devoted his life to caring for the victims. "What we can do is to give them a chance to live an easy and happy life when they come here."

Ishii was 9 on Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from her home. She said she was thrown the distance of three houses by the blast. She suffered only minor cuts and torn clothes, and her family survived as well, but that did not matter to potential suitors and their families years later.

On some nights, Ishii said, she still sheds tears thinking about her first love.

When she approached 30, she concluded that she was not going to find a husband or have children. She decided she needed to support herself, and landed a job as a telephone company operator — a coveted job for women at that time.

After retiring, she came to Mutsumi-en, where, she said, she has found peace. She joins music sessions at the home and goes on outings, including to her favorite hot springs in Hiroshima.

The home, a five-story concrete building, is drab on the outside, but inside photographs and calligraphy done by the residents cover the walls. A hanging decoration of origami paper cranes, a symbol for peace and the gift from students who visited, brightens up the linoleum-floor corridor.

Rooms are shared by four to six residents, their favorite snacks and tea cups laid out on side tables. Many hobble with their hunched backs, and some clutch onto crutches, but that doesn't stop them from taking a walk to the park and going to shop nearby.

Ishii's facility is free for its residents; the waiting list extends five years. The other three homes, which cater to those requiring more intensive care, charge fees that are much lower standard care homes. Nagasaki, site of the second A-bomb attack three days after Hiroshima, has two similar facilities.

The nursing home has a view of the Motoyasu River that seems peaceful to a visitor, but it seems only to agitate resident Toshio Okada. As he stands on a balcony, his face scrunches up and his body twists as if he is trying to avoid looking at the water.

The retired high school science teacher is married with an adult daughter. While discrimination did not keep him from having a family, he remembers fellow students at a Tokyo university gossiping about him when they learned where he was from.

It's a far darker memory that may affect his reaction to the water. Seventy years ago, when he was 10, he saw bodies in this river. They floated upstream and downstream with the changes of the tide.

"I am trying to avert my eyes from memory. I am trying not to remember my suffering," he says, flinging his hand as if trying to push the memories away.

Masao Nakazawa, a Japanese psychiatrist who has been treating atomic bomb survivors since the 1970s, calls the psychological scars they carry "the worst PTSD in human history." Even today, he sees flashbacks triggered by factors as simple as a flashing light, a certain smell, or just the scenery.

Despite the pain it brings, talking about their experience is one way to heal, Nakazawa said.

Mutsumi-en accepts about 30 school visits a year to give a younger generation a chance to meet and listen to Hiroshima survivors. It's an opportunity Okada never misses. Care workers say they think opening up this way has helped him, though he simply shrugs and says he only does it because he was asked.

On a July afternoon, Okada leaned forward as he and other residents told their stories to high school students from Tokyo, 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. He drew a map to show them how, after the attack, he made it across the obliterated city to return home.

The students fired questions at first, then grew quieter and just listened, some welling up with tears.

When it came time to leave, the aging storytellers stood at the entrance to see their fresh-faced visitors off. Okada smiled shyly and waved, until they could no longer be seen.

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