Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left survivors wrestling with spiritual questions – here's how Buddhists and Catholics responded

It has been over seven decades since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945. The U.S. attack left between 110,000 and 220,000 people dead, and hundreds of thousands more who survived the bomb but suffered its effects – people known in Japan as “hibakusha,” many of whom died of related illnesses.

Yet the production and possession of nuclear weapons has not stopped. In the United States, they hold an important place in the national psyche, regarded as ultimate protection.

For years, hibakusha have shared their testimonies and memories with the public. However, as an ethicist working on nuclear discourses in the U.S. and Japan, I have been frustrated to see that their philosophical, religious and spiritual perspectives on the matter are largely overlooked in English-language literature. Popular culture seems to value their tragic stories, but not their struggle to come to terms with the event.

Religious leaders’ understandings, rooted in their own experiences living in post-atomic Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offer insights into our violent world. At times, their interpretations of the bombings have been used to promote political agendas. Nonetheless, their interpretations allow people today to reconsider the ethics of responsibility in the atomic age.

Punishment from above

Hiroshima, where the first of the two bombs was dropped in Japan, has historically been known for the True Pure Land school of Buddhism, or Shin Buddhism, the largest Buddhist institution in Japan. Its Hiroshima adherents are called “aki monto.”

One of them was Kōji Shigenobu, who grew up to become a Shin Buddhist priest. He and other schoolchildren had been evacuated from the city during the war but lost family members in the inferno. Eventually, he developed a perspective on the bombing that represented many Hiroshima residents’ frame of mind, as I describe in my book “Beyond the Mushroom Cloud.”

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