Hibakusha is a Japanese word which means “explosion affected people.” The Hibakusha are the people who were affected by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States towards the end of the Second World War. Most Hibakusha are Japanese, although some are Koreans who were drafted into the Japanese military during the war. The Japanese government pays special allowances to surviving Hibakusha, including medical allowances to people who have been affected by radiation-related illnesses.
In order to be considered Hibakusha, people can fall into several categories. The first includes people who were within a little over a mile or several kilometers of the atomic bomb explosions. The second category encompasses people who came within one and one quarter miles (two kilometers) of the epicenters of the explosions within two weeks of the bombing. People who were exposed to fallout from the bombs are also considered Hibakusha, as are the children of women who were pregnant and exposed to the bombs.
Given that atomic bombs deliver a payload of deadly radiation, it should come as no surprise to learn that many Hibakusha suffer from illnesses caused by radiation exposure, such as leukemia. As a result, many of them require costly medical care and some of them suffer severely as a result of their radiation exposure. In the months following the detonations of the atomic bombs, thousands of Hibakusha died because their bodies were unable to cope with the radiation. As Hibakusha die, they are added to the official memorials at Hiroshima and Nagaski, in recognition of their suffering.
Although the Japanese government gives allowances and assistance to Hibakusha, many of them struggled historically with discrimination. Radiation sickness was not really understood at the time that the bombs dropped, and people were afraid that it was hereditary or contagious. Many Hibakusha found themselves ostracized from society, and some kept their Hibakusha status secret so that they would not be discriminated against.
One particularly famous survivor of the atomic bombs was Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was two when the bombs were dropped. At age 12, she developed leukemia as a result of her radiation exposure, and while in the hospital, she embarked on a project to fold 1,000 paper cranes. It is said in Japan that if you can fold 1,000 cranes, you will be granted a wish, and Sadako is said to have wished for peace. After her death in the hospital, schoolchildren across Japan raised funds to built a statue of Sadako holding a paper crane; the statue is typically bedecked with thousands of cranes sent from all over the world in the common hope that atomic bombs will never be dropped again.