The Boy in the Picture: A Remembrance
Sumiteru Taniguchi at age 16 (in photo) and speaking at the United Nations, New York, 2010
A 16-year-old Japanese boy lies face down on a hospital bed, his eyes closed and face partially obscured from view. His back and arms, oozing blood and pus, show the severe radiation burns he suffered during the atomic bombing of his city, Nagasaki, just five months before by the United States. He is still clinging to life and the Japanese doctors keeping him in a bath of penicillin to fight off infection seem amazed that the boy is still alive.
“I shuddered when the lights were turned on to film him,” recalled Herbert Sussan, a U.S. military video specialist assigned to film Japanese survivors of the two atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in January 1946. The youth with the severely burned back was the worst of the cases his U.S. filming team had come across. “None of us expected him to live,” Sussan said, “but the doctors persisted.”
It was that persistence alone by doctors in Nagasaki that saved the life of the youth, and for decades afterward, Sumiteru Taniguchi would go on to publicly display to the world that video image of himself as the boy with the bleeding back, in an appeal for the permanent banning of nuclear weapons.
A New York Times obituary on Taniguchi, who died of cancer in Nagasaki on 30 August at age 88, is indicative of the high status Taniguchi held as one of the more well-known, publicly identifiable of the hibakusha atomic bomb survivors in Japan. News outlets around the world have reported on his passing, and told and retold his story.
Taniguchi was a teenage postal carrier delivering the mail on his bicycle around 11 a.m. that morning of 9 August 1945, and was 1.8 kilometers (about one mile) from the hypocenter when the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb — as it was nicknamed by the U.S. military — was dropped over the city, killing at least 40,000 people instantly, most of whom were civilians. Like many victims of the bomb that day, Taniguchi was subjected to a wall of heat measuring an estimated 4,000 degrees Celsius (more than 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt steel.
Those who died instantly in the blast or were simply vaporized into ashes may have been the lucky ones; those who survived faced a hellish reality of death and destruction all around them. Many, like Taniguchi, had their clothing grafted onto their skin by the bomb blast and could not keep their skin from sliding off their bodies. And like many, Taniguchi lived on the border of life and death in the immediate years of medical treatment that ensued.
Taniguchi would go on to say that in surviving the atomic bombing, he grew up with an intense hate for the world of adults that would do such a thing to him as a child. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that Taniguchi would later join, and then lead as chairperson, Nihon Hidankyo, an organization formed by atomic bomb sufferers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1956 to pressure the Japanese government to improve support for the victims and to lobby governments of the world to abolish nuclear weapons forever.
In interviews and speeches in Japan and overseas over the years, Taniguchi would often hold up that famous film image of himself as the youth with the bleeding back for others to see. He did it less for pity or to accuse than as a stark reminder of what nuclear bombs can do to human beings and as a warning to never let such a horror be repeated. In the 2007 documentary film White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Japanese-American filmmaker Steven Okazaki (which I encourage you to watch here in its entirety), Taniguchi removes his shirt for the camera and reveals his once-bleeding back as it now looked decades later: still heavily scarred and still prone to infection. Like other survivors of the two atomic bombings, he was constantly plagued by radiation-induced illnesses and ailments through the rest of his life.
In 2010, Taniguchi, representing Japan’s atomic bomb survivors, reiterated his appeal for the banning of nuclear weapons during a review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations in New York City. “I am not a guinea pig, nor am I an exhibit,” he told the audience, once again showing the well-known photo of him as an ailing 16-year-old. “But you who are here today, please don’t turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again.”
The hibakusha of Japan, over these past seven decades, have had to make sure two governments in particular get that message loud and clear: the United States, as the foremost nuclear power in the world, and Japan, with its increasing moves toward remilitarization as a staunch U.S. ally protected under the American nuclear umbrella.
Have these two governments gotten that message? Apparently not. In July 2017, just a month before Taniguchi died, 122 countries of the world voted to pass the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York. This is the first legally binding international agreement ever to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons; the goal is total elimination of all nuclear weapons on the planet. But the governments of the United States and Japan, among a few others, have essentially boycotted the treaty negotiations from the start for political reasons and will not support its passage.
How supremely ironic it is that today the government of Japan, the only country ever to have been the victim of a nuclear bomb attack during war, will stand on the side of the USA, which dropped those bombs on Japan back in 1945, in opposing a treaty that could very well save us all from nuclear annihilation someday. In any case, with or without American and Japanese government support, the formal signing and enactment of this important treaty will go on as scheduled and take place later this month in New York on 20 September.
Sumiteru Taniguchi, at 88 years of age, did not live long enough to see this long-awaited day come, but his soul can rest peacefully knowing that he did as much as any one person could have done to help bring it about. From that hospital bed in Nagasaki in 1946 as a severely injured boy lingering near death, to his last public anti-nuclear appeal in Malaysia in 2016 as an ailing elder, he kept the hope for a truly peaceful world alive and in front of us, never allowing us to look away or to forget the past.
May we all find it within ourselves to help carry on his final wish from here and see that it becomes a permanent reality for our world, epitomized in the two simple words: “Never again”.