One week ahead of the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima being struck by the first atomic bomb to be used in war, a district court in the city recognised survivors of the post-explosion “black rain”, who were outside a government-defined zone at the time of the event, as atomic bomb survivors. This enables the 84 plaintiffs to avail benefits, including free medical care, given to the other survivors.
The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and another one on Nagasaki three days later on August 9. The explosions caused by the bombs and the resultant firestorms (large fires caused by the explosion) are believed to have killed around 80,000 people in Hiroshima and around 40,000 people in Nagasaki. Thousands more died in both cities in the following years due to their exposure to radiation from the blast and also from the black rain that fell in the aftermath of the explosions.
What is black rain?
An estimated 69 per cent of the buildings in Hiroshima were destroyed by the atomic bomb. The debris and soot from this, mixed with the radioactive fallout from the bomb, rose high into the atmosphere in the form of a mushroom cloud. This material combined with the vapor in the atmosphere and came down as dark drops of liquid that has been called black rain.
Survivors of the black rain described it as consisting of large, greasy drops that are much heavier than normal raindrops. Witnesses have been quoted as saying that they saw many desperate survivors of the blast, with their skins burnt and severely dehydrated, drinking the dark fluid to quench their thirst.
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What was its effect?
Black rain is full of highly radioactive material, and studies have show that exposure to it can result in serious illnesses. A study conducted in the year 1945 itself showed that black rain had come down as far as 29 km away from ground zero. The rain contaminated everything it came in contact with, and dead fish were reported floating in water bodies and severely ill cattle were seen lying in the fields. Black rain has caused acute radiation symptoms (ARS) in many who were exposed to it, with reports of people suffering from nausea and diarrhoea for weeks. Other ARS include fever, sore throat and loss of hair. Over time, many people who were exposed to black rain have developed cancer.
What about Nagasaki?
The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, but it killed fewer people and its effects were confined to a smaller area due to its geographical position between hills. The blast in Nagasaki also did not produce firestorms due to the damaged area not producing enough fuel to trigger one. This meant that the material that make up black rain was less in Nagasaki when compared to Hiroshima, and consequently, the rain was confined to a smaller area.
Why were many not recognised as survivors?
In 1976, the Japanese government used the 1945 study in Hiroshima to demarcate the area within which people could claim to have been affected by black rain and be recognised as survivors of the nuclear blast. This meant that people who lived in that area during the time of the black rain could avail free medical care and other benefits if they showed symptoms related to radiation exposure. However, studies conducted later have shown that black rain could have come down on an area nearly four times the size of the one demarcated by the government. It was also argued that people who were not living in these areas at the time of the black rain, but later moved there, could also be affected by the radioactive contamination caused by the rain.
How does Wednesday’s ruling help?
In 2015, 84 plaintiffs went to court against the restrictions placed on being recognised as Hibakusha, the Japanese term for the survivors of the nuclear blasts. They were able to prove that they suffered medical conditions caused by black rain even though they were not in government-demarcated area at the time of the rain. Wednesday’s ruling by the Hiroshima District Court recognises them as Hibakusha and gives hope to many others that the decision may pave the way for the government to reconsider the limits it has set on who can be considered a survivor of the atomic bomb.
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