Saving Face: Death, Necropolitics and the Hiroshima Maidens

By Becky Alexis-Martin

01_lede.jpg
“November 1945. Hiroshima, Japan.” Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/US Army/Reuters.

On the 6th August 1945, the USA deployed the first atomic bomb in warfare against Hiroshima in Japan and the city was irrevocably changed forever. The power of the blast shattered windows to smithereens. Concrete crumbled and turned salmon pink from exposure to ionising radiation. The searing heat of wildfires reduced wooden buildings to cinders. The exact number of fatalities is unknown, due to wartime population transience and the destruction of records during the blast. Estimates suggest that 135,000 people died, many of whom were women and children. Those who did survive were condemned by their communities and described as Hibakusha, the exposed people.

The Hibakusha became close to death from the moment that the bomb was detonated. Hiroshima city was littered with charred bodies in the aftermath. Most depictions of the wreckage were taken too late to reflect this harsh truth. For many victims death and cremation occurred concurrently, as their bodies were reduced to ash by the heat of the blast. Traces of human shadows were scorched onto steps and walls. For the remaining dead, temporary crematoriums were rapidly established across the city. The most notable of these was a makeshift altar of a Buddhist temple that stood half a mile from the blast epicentre. This site became the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, it remains an inconspicuous repository for a collection of neatly stacked white porcelain urns and pinewood caskets that contain the ashes of some 70,000 deceased. Ashes were retrieved from across the city, and the collection grew as the remains of more victims were gradually discovered[1]. Many urns remain unclaimed but will remain in the mound for perpetuity to provide some sense of dignity, an identity and a remembrance of life before death for the deceased. For the thousands interred in shared caskets, there is only anonymity and the inseparable solidarity of fate. Killed by the American atomic bomb.

“For many victims death and cremation occurred concurrently, as their bodies were reduced to ash by the heat of the blast. Traces of human shadows were scorched onto steps and walls.”

The atomic bombing erased gender by universal dehumanisation, stripping survivors of everything except their lives. However, gender has played an important role in shaping the experiences communities and individuals after the bombing[2]. Japanese society was characterised by a complex system of beliefs pertaining to purity and pollution and this had implications for environment, death and the bodies of women after the bomb. Arguably, female Hibakusha have suffered the greatest cultural and social burdens of all atomic bomb survivors. Many women and their families believed that their disfigurations were subjective reflections of family status, instead of representing the objective effects of nuclear war. The identities, self-worth and sexuality of female Hibakusha were all stilted by the bomb. Cultural fears surrounding the hereditary consequences of ionising radiation exposure meant they were stigmatised, due to a perception that they could further radiate their own personal misfortunes through bodily contact and their future children. Female Hibakusha were therefore subject to othering – they existed as liminal beings, their bodies viewed as abject, unliveable and uninhabitable [1]. For those who were children at the time of the bombing, there was a sense of pity and hopelessness for their solitary future non-lives, perceived as dead maidens walking. The Hiroshima Maidens were the first Hibakusha to be encountered by the American public, and made visible the hidden humanitarian consequences of Hiroshima through their scars. Existing in the liminal space between life and death, they shed their death masks through intervention by the same nation that created their disfigurements. Their story is one of death, necropolitics and aesthetic rebirth, and its corporeal, cultural and political consequences.

Saving Face


Necropolitics is used to describe how the state may determine who can live and who must die[3]. It is a component of the melting-pot of bio politics of control and abandonment, a process of designation of the bodies, races, genders, nations and communities that are saved, left to death or made to die. America exhibited a callous cognitive dissonance towards their role in Hiroshima’s fate. During USA post-war occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, the State Department forbade US newspapers, magazines and books from publishing images of death or disfigurement due to the atomic bombings. However it was not possible to censor all reports. John Hersey was reporting compassionately on the lives of Hiroshima victims for The New Yorker by 1946, and his work helped to catalyse the emergence of a new anti-nuclear pacifist movement[4]. By 1955 the USA had plunged into the depths of Cold War with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other prominent intellectuals clubbed together internationally to create the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, to raise public awareness of the lethal outcomes of nuclear weapons. As negative public sentiments towards nuclear weapons grew, the State Department needed a way to, at least publicly, ameliorate this adverse publicity.

Norman Cousins was the socially liberal editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and used his magazine to deepen public understanding of issues relating to pacifism and the consequences of Hiroshima[5]. In 1955, he began a programme with Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto to bring a group of twenty five young female Hibakusha to the USA for reconstructive plastic surgery, who became known as the Hiroshima Maidens[6]. Despite concerns from the State Department, it was recognised that the high-profile resolution of the Hiroshima Maidens disfigurements could offer America a strategy to regain political control of the escalating pacifist sentiment. It was also a chance for the USA to re-establish itself as a superior imperialist force for medical technology and humanitarian aid. The State Department monitored the media depictions of the Hiroshima Maidens closely, hoping for an inconspicuous rehabilitation, before their experiences could be used for anti-nuclear propaganda[7]. USA media coverage of the Hiroshima Maidens became a fetishized celebration of American benevolence. These women were depicted as the passively grateful recipients of American goodwill. The media neglected to mention that they would have been unscathed without prior American military intervention, and that they represented a tiny proportion of the thousands of women who had been scarred for life. However, to the vexation of the State Department, the high-profile visual evidence of the Hiroshima Maidens bodies enabled the American public to create links between their disfigurements and the outcomes of nuclear war. Therefore, their relationship to the bomb did little to support the compassionate war trope elicited by the State Department.

Hiroshima Maidens 1.jpg
The Hiroshima maidens, National Academy of Sciences 1955.

Maiden Aesthetics


The self-proclaimed “Unmarried Ladies of Hiroshima” belonged to Methodist minister Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s weekly support group for the severely disfigured[8]. Tanimoto had reached out to Norman Cousins to coordinate the women’s travel for reconstructive surgery in the USA. Dubbed the “Hiroshima Maidens”, twenty five of these women were to be aesthetically reconfigured in ways which paralleled the reconstruction of the city from which they came[9]. Cousins and Tanimoto emphasised the distinction between this necessary emergency plastic surgery that would be used to ameliorate suffering and elective cosmetic surgery used to facilitate beauty, to ensure that the project would receive support from the public. Surgical work was extensive, including reconstructive surgery for hands and arms as well as facial scar treatments. An aesthetic transformation was imminent. They were given an opportunity to reclaim their bodies after being scarred by the atomic bomb – however, this surgery was akin to a medicalisation of the Marshall Plan, designed to erase cultural memory as well as repairing trauma[10]. Notably, this offer was not unique, or even their first transnational option for reconstructive surgery. A group of Soviet surgeons had offered to repair their injuries in 1952, conditional on their speaking out against Western Imperialism and nuclear weapons testing. This overtly politicised offer was declined. Not all the Hiroshima Maidens left Japan for surgery. Despite the USA typecasting itself as the ultimate pioneering source of medical and philanthropic heroism, a further sixteen of the women elected to go to Osaka and Tokyo for their surgery instead. They did not feel comfortable travelling to the home of the atomic bomb for treatment.

The Hiroshima Maidens were to receive a face fit for marriage in the USA, for when they returned to Japan, their moniker laden with meaning. They had to contend with depictions of themselves as pure and love-starved virgins, unfit for any husband. Journalists consistently referred to the women as “girls” despite all having reached adulthood. The scarred aesthetic of the Hiroshima Maidens was fetishized by the US media – the women were variously described as “bomb-scarred,” “A-scarred,” “Hiroshima-scarred”, or “Atomic-bomb-scarred”. Ten years after the bomb, these women had spent most of their lives as Hibakusha. On the cusp of adulthood when Hiroshima occurred, they were concerned that their entire physiology had been interrupted by the bomb[11]. Their facial disfigurements, including keloid scars, were perceived as signs of bodily contamination by their home community. They subsequently became known as the “Keloid Girls”, in an awkward attempt to sentimentalise their liminal death masks. As they became older they felt isolated from their unscarred counterparts who were able to undertake normal activities without stigma, such as going on dates.

“The scarred aesthetic of the Hiroshima Maidens was fetishized by the US media – the women were variously described as “bomb-scarred,” “A-scarred,” “Hiroshima-scarred”, or “Atomic-bomb-scarred”.”

In the documentary The Day They Dropped the Bomb[12], a Hiroshima Maiden explicitly expressed her shame at her appearance “I looked like a monster. Big eye, and stick nose, no eyebrows and pinky face, and my lips were also up and down, open. Can you imagine?”. Surgery was an opportunity for these women to reclaim their faces, while the USA “saved face” by repairing their scars and making the visual evidence of their experiences of nuclear warfare vanish. In total, 138 surgeries were performed on the women over 18 months during their stay in the USA. Hiroko Tasaka, who received 13 more surgeries than the others, was described as “Champion Surgery Girl”. Another, Tomoko Nakabayashi, died of cardiac arrest whilst undergoing minor reconstructive surgery – a diagnosis that was attributed to surgical complications rather than radiation effects. Her death was reframed yet again by the media as a moral rather than a human story, with one headline proclaiming: ‘Beauty Hunt Fatal—Hiroshima Maiden Dies in Surgery’, implying that her death was due to her own vanity rather than medical error[13].

The Hiroshima Maidens were portrayed as empty canisters for benevolent American goodwill, smiling earnestly despite enduring agonising surgery. They were manipulated signifiers, consistently and visibly contested through pictures and discourse[14]. Their happiness was fundamental to state in diverting attention from the harm caused by the American attack upon Hiroshima. They were given a Western “rebirth” in the USA, their otherness neutralised by reconstructing them socially, culturally, and to some extent even physically in the image of the American woman. Colonialist discourse positioned Western fashion as liberating or superior to Asian styles[15]. Thus, American aesthetic was thrust upon them by their middle-class Quaker host families, as the women were reimagined as stylish and upwardly mobile medical pioneers. Their hair was restyled and they were given gifts of expensive tweed suits, elegant shirts and cashmere sweaters. They were encouraged to engage in hobbies and pursuits, including painting, nursing and secretarial skills. The reconstructive surgical techniques that were used to treat the Hiroshima Maidens were later adapted and exported in the form of Westernising plastic surgery, making the women unwitting participants of future medicalised aesthetic cultural imperialism[16].

Hiroshima maidens 2
“A Hiroshima Maiden receives medical treatment”. Bettman/CORBIS 1955

The Reckoning


Two of the Hiroshima Maidens were invited alongside Reverend Tanimoto and his family to appear on the American TV programme “This is Your Life”. The supposed purpose of this appearance was to raise funds to help to pay for the Hiroshima Maiden’s surgeries, but it also provided an opportunity for the American media to create a sense of alterity toward these women. The Hiroshima Maidens were presented as ethnically and physically distinct from their audience, notable by their (in)visibility behind a screen to “protect” their aesthetic from the audience. Edwards told the audience, “To avoid causing them any embarrassment, we will not show you their faces.” So instead, they appeared as ghost puppets, rather than frightful apparitions of the consequences of state necropolitics, deemed too hideous for American audiences, in one final attempt to obscure the ugly consequences of Hiroshima from the public domain[17]. By creating shadowy figures of these women, they lost their personal subjectivity, becoming anonymous and docile shapes.

“The Hiroshima Maidens were presented as ethnically and physically distinct from their audience, notable by their (in)visibility behind a screen to “protect” their aesthetic from the audience.”

This episode had a surprise in store, in the form of the nervous figure of Lieutenant Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay who had joint responsibility for destroying Hiroshima. Suddenly, Lewis had to face the consequences of his actions. Operating under orders, he was still purposely violent in deploying the atomic bomb, but unaware of the humanity of his faceless victims. He had drunk himself into oblivion before the show, and precariously recited the words that he had prepared for this moment of public reckoning, before offering a cheque towards the surgical treatments that he had made necessary.

“…At 8:15 promptly, the bomb was dropped. We turned fast to get out of the way of the deadly radiation and bomb effects. First was the big flash that we got, and then the two concussion waves hit the ship. Shortly after, we turned back to see what had happened. And there, in front of our eyes, the city of Hiroshima disappeared. I wrote down later, “My God, what have we done?”

He was contracted by the State Department after his appearance, and reprimanded from showing signs of reservation about Hiroshima. A combination of guilt and depression proved too much for him, leading to a temporary institutionalisation by the late 1950s. Later in life he trained as a sculptor of stone and alabaster, painstakingly building an enormous sculpture of a mushroom cloud cascading with tears called “God’s Wind at Hiroshima”. Notably, American scholars have reported him “committing suicide” soon after institutionalisation, but this was not the case. Perhaps this death myth reflects a growing post-colonial attitude and the shame associated with his act.

Hiroshima Forever?


The lives of the Hiroshima Maidens demonstrate the dark relationship between necropolitics and aesthetics. By enabling facial reconstructive surgery for these select group of Hibakusha, the USA revealed its desire to conceal and control the outcomes of its necropolitical decisions towards Japan through a small gesture of goodwill, designed to symbolically and literally obscure and “repair” the trauma, desolation and death created by the atomic bomb. Media coverage of the women’s experiences in the USA banalised the consequences of the atomic bomb, recasting America as saviours and medical pioneers. The USA State Department used the women as an opportunity to justify their collective violence, whilst reinforcing white, middle-class family values[18]. For America, this was not a confession or a show of remorse, but an opportunity to address the needs of those less fortunate through a Western lens.

“The Hiroshima Maidens were able to reclaim their physical features, but their return home was split between those welcoming them and those seeing them as puppets of the West.”

The Hiroshima Maidens were able to reclaim their physical features, but their return home was split between those welcoming them and those seeing them as puppets of the West[19]. Some went back to America and decided to embrace Western culture, becoming housewives, designers and nurses. To this extent, there was a Hiroshima Maiden who, post-surgery, told a journalist that she was glad that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima because it had ended the war, meshing perfectly into the established Western narrative of this outrageously violent necropolitical act. Others stayed in Japan after their return and ended up in low paying positions, such as Hiroshima Maiden Yamaoka Michiko who survived by sewing work at home, transforming military uniforms and old kimono into western clothes[20]. Once the stigma of being Hibakusha eventually passed, Yamaoka Michiko eventually became a notable pacifist and one of the many keepers of the Kataribe testimonials of Hiroshima. Their story is one of survival, trauma and the duplicitous concealment of their psychological and cultural scars. The Hiroshima Maidens scars and dignity were pared away by the American media and surgeons, rendering their deformities and the atrocities committed by the USA (in)visible, leaving them locked in a Faustian death-grip with ionising radiation and Western culture.

Hiroshima eye patch
‘Hiroshima A-Bomb Survivors Face Brighter Future’. Source: AP Wire 9 May 1955.

Dr Becky Alexis-Martin is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton and the Principal Investigator of the Nuclear Families Project. This project explores the intergenerational challenges and injustices experienced by the British nuclear test veterans and associated communities worldwide. Becky graduated from her PhD in 2017, which was entitled RADPOP: A New Modelling Framework for Radiation Protection. She uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches in social and human sciences to understand the wider implications of social justice, gender and nuclear defence. Her work has been featured in The Guardian and The Conversation, and she is currently completing her first monograph. Prior to joining academia, Becky worked in emergency planning and radiation protection.

Follow her on twitter and learn more at dreadful.earth.

References


“ATOM BOMB VICTIMS TO GET MORE CARE” New York Times (Nov 13, 1956).

Cousins, N. Hiroshima Maidens

De Benedetti, C. 1978. The American Peace Movement and the National Security State, 1941-1971. World Affairs, 141(2), pp.118-129.

Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

Hein, L., 2015. Ran Zwigenberg. Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture.

Hersey, J., 1946. Hiroshima. The New Yorker.

Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

Mbembé, J.A. and Meintjes, L., 2003. Necropolitics. Public culture, 15(1), pp.11-40.

Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

Miyamoto, Y., 2015. Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences. Critical Military Studies, 1(2), pp.116-130.

Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

Slavick, E.O.H., 2009. Hiroshima: After Aftermath. Critical Asian Studies, 41(2), pp.307-328.

Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

Footnotes


[1] Slavick, E.O.H., 2009. Hiroshima: After Aftermath. Critical Asian Studies, 41(2), pp.307-328.

[2] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

[3] Mbembé, J.A. and Meintjes, L., 2003. Necropolitics. Public culture, 15(1), pp.11-40.

[4] Hersey, J., 1946. Hiroshima. The New Yorker.

[5] De Benedetti, C. 1978. The American Peace Movement and the National Security State, 1941-1971. World Affairs, 141(2), pp.118-129.

[6] Cousins, N. Hiroshima Maidens.

[7] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[8] Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

[9] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[10] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[11] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

[12] “The Day They Dropped the Bomb”. 2015. ITV. UK

[13] Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

[14] Gemi-Iordanou, E., Gordon, S., Matthew, R. and McInnes, E. eds., 2014. Medicine, Healing and Performance. Oxbow Books.

[15] Jacobs, R., 2010. Reconstructing the perpetrator’s soul by reconstructing the victim’s body: the portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the mainstream media in the United States. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 24.

[16] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[17] Miller, B. 2016. “Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift”

[18] Miyamoto, Y., 2015. Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences. Critical Military Studies, 1(2), pp.116-130.

[19] Serlin, D., 2004. Replaceable you: Engineering the body in postwar America. University of Chicago Press.

[20] Todeschini, M., 2001. The bomb’s womb. Women and the Atom Bomb, pp.102-56. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery.

Hiroshima maidens in shadows this is your life.png
Hiroshima Maidens in shadows during This is Your Life.

Guest Post

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: