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The Hiroshima Maidens

The Story

Faces were distorted by thick scar tissue. Hands were bent into near-useless claws. The victims of the atomic bomb became known as hibakusha, "bomb-affected people." Ten years after the bomb, 25 of them -- all young women -- got a chance to recover from the damage. After travelling to the United States and enduring multiple operations, these women can finally look in the mirror. CBC Radio's Assignment meets the Hiroshima Maidens. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Aug. 8, 1957
Guests: Yoshie Enokawa, William Maxwell Hitzig, Shigeko Niimoto, Hiroko Tasaka, Helen Yokoyama
Host: Maria Barrett
Reporter: Colin Edwards
Duration: 7:54
Photo: Radiation Effects Research Foundation

Did You know?

• By 1951, Hiroshima victim Shigeko Niimoto had endured several operations to repair the horrific scarring on her face. But none was successful. One day, after attending a Christian church service for the first time, she met Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who invited her to a meeting of bomb-affected people.
• Finding the discussion too political, Niimoto left. But she suggested to Rev. Tanimoto that they form a group just for young women with similar injuries and concerns.

• Tanimoto knew at least a dozen more such women. A group began meeting in the basement of his church, finding sympathy in others who were similarly injured.
• The women had all experienced similar indignities: hidden from view by protective parents, scrutinized when they ventured outside, unwanted by employers, and rejected as potential wives for fear they were genetically damaged.

• Tanimoto had gained some fame in America as one of the subjects of a celebrated 1946 magazine article by journalist John Hersey. After an American speaking tour, Tanimoto joined with American journalists to create a charitable foundation to help victims of Hiroshima and "explore the ways of peace."
• Hersey, Pearl S. Buck and Norman Cousins were Tanimoto's partners in the Hiroshima Peace Centre Foundation.

• The group of young scarred women was one of the foundation's projects. Tanimoto called it the Society of Keloid Girls.
• "Keloids" are hard, overgrown patches of scar tissue that can form when damaged skin heals. Many of the women were afflicted by keloids.
• Though they met in a Christian church, most of the women were Buddhists. Bible study and Christian songs were part of each meeting, but few converted.

• With help from a sympathetic female newspaper columnist, Shizue Masugi, Tanimoto began raising funds to get plastic surgery for his young group. Newspapers dubbed them genbaku otome, or "atomic bomb maidens," and in 1952 about 20 of them were treated in Tokyo and Osaka.
• Plastic surgery in Japan at the time was not nearly as advanced as it was in Europe or the United States. Tanimoto tried to find a way to get the girls to America.

• Magazine editor Norman Cousins and his wife Ellen pledged to help Tanimoto. They found two doctors, William Maxwell Hitzig and Arthur Barsky of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who were willing to supervise the medical operations.
• A pacifist Christian sect, the Religious Order of Friends (known as Quakers), was enlisted to host the women between operations.

• The U.S. State Department was at first resistant to the idea of Americans helping the Hiroshima victims. It feared any aid would be seen as an admission of guilt, or that communists would use the event for anti-American propaganda.
• Having smoothed over those concerns, the group got the go-ahead. A group of 25 women in their teens and twenties departed for America on May 5, 1955.

• On May 11, 1955, Tanimoto was the subject of the American TV program This Is Your Life. On live TV, before a studio audience, numerous guests came forward to illustrate pivotal moments in Tanimoto's life.
• Among the guests were two of the Hiroshima maidens, their faces hidden behind a screen. But the most surprising was Captain Robert Lewis, one of the pilots who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

• In all, 138 surgeries were performed on the 25 women over a period of 18 months. Hiroko Tasaka, heard in this clip, was known as "Champion Surgery Girl" because she had 13 operations, more than anyone else.
• One of the Hiroshima Maidens, Masako Tachibana, later married and moved to Canada. See her 1995 interview with CBC Television.



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