Hiroshima Maidens: More than a Facelift

Nearing the end of World War II, the Allied forces were desperate to end the fighting with Japan in the Pacific. For the American troops it seemed as though the Japanese would not have surrendered until every soldier and citizen were wiped out. In a desperate move President Truman made the decision of utilizing the newly developed atomic bomb in hopes of forcing the Japanese to surrender. In August of 1945 two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, First in Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. Both cities were decimated in an instant. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the initial blast, while thousands more were afflicted with radiation poisoning in the years after. The cities fared no better as most buildings and homes were destroyed in the blast. As the crew of the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the bombs, flew away from Hiroshima, co-pilot Robert Lewis wrote in his log, “My God, what have we done.”[1] In his article “Reconstructing the Hiroshima Maidens”, David Serlin goes into detail about the reconstruction of Hiroshima and, more importantly, its relation to the physical rehabilitation of a group of Hiroshima women who suffered great burn scars from the atomic blast.

Mitsuko Kuronoto, left. One of the Maidens known as the "Weeping Maiden" due to her eyepatch.
Mitsuko Kuronoto, left. One of the Maidens known as the “Weeping Maiden” due to her eyepatch.

Survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki often times bore physical scarring from the intense heat and radiation. Women who were victims of burns and scars were kept away from the public due to familial shame. Japanese surgeons were sometimes employed to fix the physical deformities, but to no great success. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto decided to gather a group of 25 scarred women and take them to America for professional plastic surgery. Dubbed the “Hiroshima Maidens”, these 25 women were to be reconstructed in ways which paralleled the reconstruction of the city from which they came. On the projects announcement, newspapers began covering the story of these women, starting with a photograph of two Maidens posed in front of the still-standing Industrial Promotion Hall. This photograph depicted the old Hiroshima as the damaged Promotion Hall, and the future of Hiroshima as the two Maidens in the foreground of the shot. Serlin makes the argument that “the orchestrated efforts by the Maidens’ sponsors to reconstruct the young women’s faces and bodies reflected the same desire for transformation that affected their native city.”[2] The argument that the Maidens’ upcoming plastic surgery and 18 month stay in America parallels the desire to reconstruct Hiroshima in a Westernized vision is sound in its reasoning. The people of Hiroshima desired a more modern city to call their own, while these women found desire in transforming their afflicted skin to that of something socially updated and acceptable.

For the weeks leading up to, and  during the trip, the Maidens were followed by newspaper journalists and television programs detailing their travels, as well as publishing their accounts of the atomic explosion. Television program This is Your Life had Tanimoto recount his day of the explosion, and even brought on the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, much to Tanimoto’s discomfort, Robert Lewis. Something which irritated me when reading through Serlin’s article was his explanation of how the State Department closely monitored the Maidens’ travels and exposure in relation to the growing anti-atomic movement. It made it seem as though these women were nothing more than political chess pieces during the beginnings of the Cold War. The State Department seemed to want to keep the topic off of the effects caused by the atomic bombs, and get these women the surgery as quickly as possible. To them, it seemed as though anyone who spoke out against the use of atomic weapons were pro-USSR and pro-Communist. In the end, after all the media harassment and political games, the women did receive treatment, thus becoming symbols of a new “postwar identity” [3]. Serlin goes on to explain that the Maidens represented a group of people who could reclaim their bodies after being scarred by the horrors of modern warfare. Even though the Maidens were able to reclaim their physical features, their return home was split between those welcoming them and those seeing them as puppets of the West.

In a secondary article I found entitled “Illegitimate Sufferers: A-Bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government”, Maya Todeschini looks into accounts of atomic bomb survivors, the resulting radiation poisoning for some, and medical approaches to curing the victims. She proposes the question of how did “American authorities and scientists respond to the emergence of A-bomb victims and the effect of radiation?” [4] Todeschini goes on to explain that in the twelve years after the dropping of the bombs the hibakusha, the name given to atomic bomb survivors, received no aid outside of what inexperienced Japanese doctors could give, save the 25 Hiroshima Maidens who ventured to America. As for the American government, officials began observation of the hibakusha on the day of Japanese surrender, but, as to not spread panic among the people, firmly declared there was no correlation between the atomic bomb and the death of Japanese citizens from radiation poisoning. One of the first steps for treating victims of the bombings was the creation of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), which setup a research center in Hiroshima for the purpose of examination, but not immediate treatment, of victims of radiation poisoning. In many accounts of patients of the ABCC, victims expressed much discomfort and embarrassment from the vast array of tests given to them. Todeschini also explains that from the emergence of the ABCC to the 1990s, hibakusha were not receiving the proper medical care for their radiation poisoning. It was not until the 1990s that the Japanese government began mass funding for research into the effects of radiation poisoning, and hibakusha were able to begin receiving the proper treatment. It is disheartening to me that this experience was not seen as an opportunity for furthering the medical field. Tobeschini makes it seem like the victims of the atomic bomb were treated more or less like lab rats, only for observation and the occasional embarrassing test. The style of her writing and argument of the failed immediate rehabilitation tells me that the American government wanted to put the events of August 1945 behind them as quickly as possible. It seems to parallel what Serlin discussed in his article, in that the State Department kept a close watch on the actions and portrayals of the Hiroshima Maidens in the media, hoping for the quick and quiet rehabilitation before they could be used for anti-atomic propaganda.

The use of the atomic bomb from a moralistic standpoint is still being discussed in the modern day with relation to possible future conflicts. Its use in World War II led to instantaneous mass death and destruction. It also left thousands with physical deformities such as burns and extreme scarring. The Hiroshima Maidens had the opportunity to have those deformities corrected by top American surgeons, as well as months to spend recuperating in the Pennsylvanian countryside. But, I see this story, presented by Serlin, as another charitable action grabbed by sensationalist media and twisted into something it never intended to be. With interference from the State Department and newspapers, I see it as a miracle that the women even made it to the operating room. With questions revolving around pro-atomic and anti-atomic citizens, the State Department kept close watch on the travels of the Maidens to keep pro-Communist propaganda  away from tabloids or grassroots movements. I think one question Serlin did not address enough was the Maidens’ return trip to Japan. He makes a few concluding remarks about how they received a lukewarm welcome, but I think he could have delved deeper in the topic. Some simple questions I’m left is, were any of these women warmly received by their own families? Were any of them able to work to make a living? And were any of the unmarried able to find a husband?

Side note: I did find the This is Your Life segment mentioned in the article where Robert Lewis, one of the men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, meets with Reverend Tanimoto, a survivor of the atomic bombing. Click here to view it. It is quite awkward as one would imagine.

[1] David Serlin, “Reconstructing the Hiroshima Maidens,” Replaceable you: engineering the body in postwar America (2004). 89

[2] Ibid. 77

[3] Ibid. 101

[4] Maya Todeschini, “Illegitimate Victims: A-Bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government,” Daedalus (1999). 70

About benmiller

Hello! My name is Ben Miller and i am currently a junior at Virginia Tech in the History Department.
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