This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
Toward the end of World War II, which spanned the years 1939-1945, there were constant efforts on part of both the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) and the Allies (France, UK, USA, USSR, China) to establish dominance. One exercise in this direction manifested in the course of the development of weapons. Toward the end of the war, Japan had demonstrated readiness to surrender, but the US deployed the atomic bomb, reducing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to dust. The bombing instantly killed 70,000+ civilians, sparing munitions factories located on the periphery (McKinney et al., 2020).
Sex-specific and gendered impacts of the Atomic Bombs
In 1945, the USA detonated two atomic bombs named Little boy and Fat man over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (Tomonaga, 2019). Areas within 1.0km of ground zero saw immediate carbonization of humans, intense flash burns owing to intense heat waves were reported among victims within 0.5-1.5 km, black rain containing radioactive soot and particles poured in areas far from ground zero. The surviving victims were called Hibakusha (which translates to hi "affected" + baku "bomb" + sha "person") who faced an alarming number of social and medical issues. Most inhabitants in both cities, civilian women and children, as men were sent off to the military.
There were two specific manifestations of the gendered and sex-specific impacts after the bombings:the lack of medical attention and the social pushback, manifesting in the form of the lack of professional opportunities, discrimination in marriage and in the workplace, the fear of bearing children, the disruption of family life, and material poverty.
The impact of the radiation was severely minimised by the Japanese media and the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) (RERF, n.d.) created in 1947 to research the long-term effects of radiation on Hibakusha. The press code enabled by the US government functioned as a censorship code and prevented the Hibakusha from understanding the consequences they were going to face following exposure (Hook, 1998). The ABCC permeated the idea that Leukaemia was a feminine disease and consistently reiterated the ‘harmlessness’ of the bomb. They attributed many medical issues raised to the poverty of female Hibakusha.
As reproductive health is stigmatized in Japan, women were held personally responsible for the stillbirths and miscarriages they endured as a result of the radiation. This resulted in the social shunning of ‘infertile’ women who now were of no ‘use’ to Japan, depicting the strong link between womanhood and childrearing.
Specific forms of cancer like breast and ovarian cancer, spontaneous abortion and still births were common after exposure to radiation. Generations of Hibakusha women and girls started menarche with painful haemorrhages and intensive blood loss, enduring frequent miscarriages, giving birth to children with genetic disorders and disabilities (Neel et al., 1953).
Many Hibakusha women were abandoned by their husbands after the explosion as their beauty was compromised, many women were stopped from entering public spaces for fear or contamination. In the aftermath of the A bombings, there was a rise of sexual violence directed targeting female Hibakusha (Owens, 2020). ABCCs foreign medical practitioners and scientists were notorious perpetrators of sexual violence against them (Todeschini, 1999). Women and girls reported being molested and sexually assaulted during medical examinations by the ABCC. Their aggressive investigation and documenting procedures without providing treatments to victims especially women, dehumanised them. The unethical data collection methods sparked fury where young girls and women were photographed naked without consent (Soka Gakkai Youth Division, 2017).
Gender insensitive post disaster relief measures include women being stripped naked and hosed down with liquid in front of their male relatives or male onlookers (Dimmen, 2014). Women and girls reported being subjected to humiliating pubic hair examinations by male personnel, which often lead to sexual violence. Other gender insensitive measures that resulted in grave documentation errors include the lack of female medical officers in data collection (Soka Gakkai Youth Division, 2017). The book “We Never Forget” recalls how Female Hibakusha as young as 11 were routinely subjected to socially taboo conversations by foreign male scientists on their menstruation and menarche (Soka Gakkai Youth Division, 2017). The conversations would often end with no responses from the girls, later leading to male scientists to conclude that radiation did not have any impact on reproductive capacities. Ashley Martinez’s (2015) work on the A bombings depicts how sex slavery, gang-related crime, suicides, and other deaths unrelated to the bombing sky-rocketed because of the hopelessness.
The gendered impacts of A bomb explosions remain unaddressed in both international forums and domestic forums. Though women disproportionately suffered health effects, social stigma, and economic hardships, these gendered impacts remain unacknowledged by Japan and global actors. Hibakusha memorial projects, women's activist groups, support groups like the Women's section, Osaka association of A bomb victims are the only actors that are making efforts to document this gendered experience of the atomic bombing. Notably, women hibakusha from the Osaka group went on to strongly advocate for disarmament and peacekeeping in the UN and other international platforms in the 1970s. However, this advocacy centred on the general disruption caused and the harm to their children's lives.
Dimmen, A. G. (2014). Gendered Impacts: The Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons from a Gender Perspective. International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).
Hook, G. D. (1988). Roots of nuclearism: Censorship and reportage of atomic damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Martinez, A. (2015). Hiroshima and Mass Trauma Today: Treating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Individuals and Communities. International ResearchScape Journal, 3(1), 8.
McKinney, K. E., Sagan, S. D., & Weiner, A. S. (2020). Why the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be illegal today. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76(4), 157-165.
Neel, J. V., Schull, W. J., McDonald, D. J., Morton, N. E., Kodani, M., Takeshima, K., ... & Kitamura, S. (1953). The effect of exposure to the atomic bombs on pregnancy termination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: preliminary report. Science, 118(3071), 537-541.
Owens, J. (2020). The Gendered Impacts of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki Bombings. https://outrider.org/nuclear-weapons/articles/gendered-impacts-hiroshima-nagasaki-bombings
RERF (n.d.). Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). https://www.rerf.or.jp/en/glossary/abcc-en/
Soka Gakkai Youth Division. (2017). Hiroshima and Nagasaki: That we never forget https://www.sokaglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/hibakusha-testimonies-book.pdf
Todeschini, M. (1999). Illegitimate sufferers: A-bomb victims, medical science, and the government. https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&u=googlescholar&id=GALE%7CA54926501&v=2.1&it=r&sid=googleScholar&asid=c9280054
Tomonaga, M. (2019). The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A summary of the human consequences, 1945-2018, and lessons for homo sapiens to end the nuclear weapon age. Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 2(2), 491-517.
Report written by Treesa Shaju