TOKYO — Seventy-three years after atomic bombs laid waste to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remaining survivors still bear the physical and psychological scars of the horror they endured. And for many, one of the most troubling aspects of that experience is the lingering guilt they feel, for having survived while so many others perished.

That was one of the findings of a joint survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun and Hiroshima University's Center for Peace. Timed to coincide with the anniversaries this month of the bombings in Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9), the poll was based on interviews with 100 people who were within two kilometers of the detonation sites.

When asked if they were unable to save the lives of their families and other people close to them or those who were in need of help, 47 of the 100 respondents said "yes." Of them, 35 respondents expressed sentiments along the lines of, "Even now, I sometimes feel a heavy burden on my mind and feel guilty."

Researchers conducted the interviews between April and July.

I said I would come back with water, but I just left.

In Hiroshima, almost all of the buildings within two kilometers of ground zero were destroyed and burned down. In Nagasaki, which has basin-shaped terrain, only about 20% of structures within that radius survived. In both cities, the fatality rate for people within one kilometer of the impact sites was higher than 80%. Half the people within 1-1.5 kilometers of the blasts died, and 20 to 30% of people within 1.5-2 kilometers were killed.

Many survivors recall seeing people lying on the ground on the brink of death. "People who wanted water grabbed my foot, but I told them to keep laying there. I said I would come back with water, but I just left," one 87-year-old Nagasaki told the interviewers.

Injured people, 1.1 km from Hiroshima ground zero — Source: Yosuke Yamahata/Wikimedia Commons

When asked about how she deals with such feelings, a Nagasaki woman, 88, said that as a survivor, she made it her responsibility to tell the story of what happened that day." On behalf of those who died, I devoted myself to activities to talk about what I experienced," she said.

Others said the experience was too painful to divulge: "I couldn't talk about my experiences until I turned 80, because doing so is like confessing sins, which is painful and shameful," a 89-year-old Hiroshima woman said.

As of April, the number of people who have an Atomic Bomb Survivor's certificate stood at 154,859 — down 60% since the end of the year 1980, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The average age among survivors is now just above 82.

It's like confessing sins.

The survey also underlined the disconnect that survivors perceive between their experiences and what subsequent generations understand about the bombings, and the threat of nuclear weapons in general. Only six of the 100 respondents said the threat is well recognized among the public.

Still, when asked if Nobel Peace Prize awarded last year to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) would hasten efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, many survivors responded positively. Twenty respondents said, "I strongly think so" and 47 said, "I think so, to a certain extent."

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