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Pages 314-329 | Published online: 22 Feb 2022
Research Article

Voices of the Unredressed: Korean and Nisei A-Bomb Survivors, Structural Legacies of Violence, and Compensatory Justice in the Cold War Pacific



This essay explores the historical erasures of Korean and U.S.-born Japanese American (Nisei) survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing. Since 1945, the Korean survivors of Hiroshima have struggled for redress as South Korea has remained a crucial part of the U.S. Cold War nuclear umbrella. As American civilians, the Nisei atomic bomb survivors have also found themselves unrecognized by their country as victims of the U.S. nuclear violence. The struggles of Korean and Nisei A-bomb survivors for historical recognition reveal the colonial, racial, and state violence that remain unredressed in the U.S. “empire for liberty” well into the twenty-first century.


I am grateful to Naoko Wake for her generous reading of this article and for her insightful feedback. I am also indebted to Crystal Mun-hye Baik, Wendy Cheng, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu for their invaluable comments and suggestions. Many thanks to Arnold Pan for his wonderful editorial support.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1. “Gyeongnam hapcheon-e guknae cheot wonja poktan jaryogwan kaegwan,” Hankyoreh Shinmun, August 6, 2017.

2. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage: World Heritage Committee Nineteenth Session, Berlin, Germany, December 9, 1995 (Paris: UNESCO, 1996), 48–49.

3. “Status Report on the Korean A-Bomb Survivors,” Korean Atomic Bomb Victims Association, December 31, 2018, http://www.wonpok.or.kr/doc/abomb1.html.

4. Lee Sun Ho, interviewed by author, September 25, 2017, Hapcheon, Republic of Korea [interviewee’s name changed for privacy].

5. Kazue Suyeishi, interviewed by author, December 31, 2015, Torrance, California; Kazue Suyeishi, “Nikushimi o idaku de naku,” Hibaku Kaikenki Collection. Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, Hiroshima, Japan; “Kokumin giyutai no soshiki unyo ni kan suru ken imei tsucho,” May 7, 1945. Kokumin giyutai ikken toji. Hiroshima Municipal Archives, Hiroshima, Japan. See also Michael R. Jin, Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in the Pacific (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022), 135–51.

6. According to Mitsubishi’s August 1945 internal corporate memo disclosed by Takahashi Makoto, the chair of the Nagoya Mitsubishi Chosen Joshi Kinro Teishintai Sosho o Shien Suru Kai (“Coalition for Legal Support of the Wartime Korean Women Labor Corps at Mitsubishi in Nagoya”), the conscripted laborers from Korea who worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industry had numbered 12,913 by the end of World War II. Among these workers, there were 9485 women, far outnumbering men. The shipping plant in Hiroshima was among the largest employer of these workers. See “Ilbon jeonbeom giop gangjae jingyong sashil ipjung junggeo jaryo gongae ‘nungil’,” Hankyorae Shinmun, September 23, 2019.

7. Naoko Wake, American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 24–28.

8. Lisa Yoneyama, “Toward a Decolonial Genealogy of the Transpacific,” American Quarterly 69, no. 3 (September 2017): 472.

9. John W. Dower, “Triumphal and Tragic Narratives of the War in Asia,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (December 1995): 1124–35; and Yui Daizaburo, “Between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima/Nagasaki: Nationalism and Memory in Japan and the United States,” in Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age, ed. Laura Hein and Mark Selden (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 52–72.

10. Lisa Yoneyama, Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), viii–ix.

11. John W. Dower, “Foreword,” in Rinjiro Sodei, Were We the Enemy? American Survivors of Hiroshima (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), xi.

12. See Wake, American Survivors. See also Naoko Wake, “Surviving the Bomb in America: Silent Memories and the Rise of Cross-national Identity,” Pacific Historical Review 86, no. 3 (2017): 472–509. The “American hibakusha” interviewed by Wake includes Japanese Americans who are U.S. citizens by birth, as well as those Japanese and Korean survivors who immigrated to the United States after the war and became naturalized U.S. citizens. In this essay, I focus on the experiences of U.S.-born Nisei as American citizens by birth and Korean survivors as colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire at the time of the atomic bombing. These prewar positionalities of Korean and Nisei survivors shaped by their birth citizenship statuses contributed to their struggles for redress in their respective native countries during the Cold War era.

13. See, for example, Michael Weiner, “The Representation of Absence and the Absence of Representation: Korean Victims of the Atomic Bomb,” in Michael Weiner, ed., Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (London: Routledge, 1997); David Palmer, “Korean Hibakusha, Japan’s Supreme Court, and the International Community: Can the U.S. and Japan Confront Forced Labor and Atomic Bombing?,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 6, no. 2 (February 2008); Agota Duro, “Confronting Colonial Legacies: The Historical Significance of Japanese Grassroots Cooperation for the Support of Korean Atomic Bomb Survivors” (PhD Diss., Hiroshima City University, 2017); and Wake, American Survivors. Recent examples of works published in Korean include Kim Seung Un, “Jaehan wonpok pihaeja moonje-e daehan hanil yanguk ui inshik gwa gyoseop taedo (1965–1980),” Asea yeongu 55, no. 2 (2012a); Oh Eun Jung, “Gwanryojejeok moonseo jooui sogeseo girok gwa gieok: Hanguk wonpok pihaeja ui ilbon pipokja geongang sucheop chuiduk gwajeonge daehan minjokjijeok yeongu,” Hanguk moonwha inryuhak 47, no. 2 (2014); and Yang Dong Sook, “Hiroshima hyun joseonin pipokja hyeopuihoe ui kyeolsungwa wonsupok geumji undong,” Gieok gwa jeonmang 38 (2018).

14. Yoneyama, Cold War Ruins, ix.

15. Yang, “Hiroshima hyun joseonin pipokja.”

16. Chosenjin Kyosei Renko Shinso Chosadan, Chosenjin kyosei renko chosa no kiroku (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1992); Hur Kwang Mu, “Jeon shigi Joseon-in nomuja gangjae dongwon gwa wonpok pihae: Hiroshima, Nagasaki jiyeok-jeok tukjing ul jungshim uro,” Hanil minjok munje yeongu 20 (June 2011): 5–55.

17. Nam Hwa Ja, interviewed by Oh Eun Jung, April 6, 2011 Hapcheon, Republic of Korea, Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, Hankuk wonpok pihaeja 65 nyeonsa (Seoul: Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, 2011), 505–10.

18. See Kim, “Jaehan wonpok pihaeja”; Duro, “Confronting Colonial Legacies.”

19. Byun Yeon Ok, interviewed by Oh Eun Jung, Hapcheon, Republic of Korea, April 5, 2011, Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, Hankuk wonpok pihaeja, 489–90.

20. See above 14.

21. Section (b) of Article 14 of the Treaty of San Francisco stipulates that “Except as otherwise provided in the present Treaty, the Allied Powers waive all reparations claims of the Allied Powers, other claims of the Allied Powers and their nationals arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of the prosecution of the war, and claims of the Allied Powers for direct military costs of occupation. Conference for the Conclusion and Signature of the Treat of Peace with Japan, San Francisco, California, September 4–8, 1951: Record of proceedings (Washington, DC: Department of State, 1951).

22. Akiko Naono, “The Origins of ‘Hibakusha’ as a Scientific and Political Classification of the Survivor,” Japanese Studies 39, no. 3 (2019): 333–52.

23. Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, Hankuk wonpok pihaeja, 101.

24. Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, Signed June 22, 1965, Tokyo, Japan. http://overseas.mofa.go.kr/jp-ko/brd/m_1058/view.do?seq=643907.

25. Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, Hankuk wonpok pihaeja, 108–14, 118.

26. See Duro, “Confronting Colonial Legacies” for the history of grassroots activism in Japan in support of Korean survivors based on English and Japanese sources.

27. Hankuk Wonpok Pihaeja Hyeophoe, Hankuk wonpok pihaeja, 101–103, 130–143, 172–190. See also Duro, “Confronting Colonial Legacies.”

28. Byun Yeon Ok, interviewed by Oh Eun Jung, Hapcheon, Republic of Korea, April 5, 2011.

29. “Il beobwon ‘pipok hanin bosang’ choejong injung,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, November 2 2007.

30. Kim Huisu, interviewed by author, Hapcheon, Republic of Korea, September 25, 2017[interviewee’s name changed for privacy].

31. The Japanese Consulates General in the United States counted 40,000 U.S.-born Nisei from the contiguous United States and Hawai‘i who had gone to Japan by the mid-1930s. This number represented a fourth of the total Japanese American population based on the 1930 U.S. Census and a fifth based on the number of Nisei counted by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in 1935. Although other unofficial sources, such as the vernacular Japanese American newspapers in Hawai‘i, Los Angeles, and San Francisco throughout the 1930s and 1940s suggested even a larger number of U.S.-born Nisei in the Japanese Empire, I use the Japanese government’s figures and the total number of U.S.-born Japanese Americans based on the 1940 U.S. census to estimate that about a fourth (50,000) of Nisei (200,194) had gone to the Japanese Empire by the eve of Pearl Harbor to work, study, join their parents’ return migration to Japan, or for other reasons, such as short-term study tours and personal visits that turned into long-term stays. See Kumei Teruko, “1930 nendai no kibei undo: Amerika kokusekiho to kanren ni oite,” Imin kenkyu 30 (1993); Michael Jin, “Americans in the Pacific: Rethinking Race, Gender, and Diaspora at the Crossroads of Asian and Asian American Studies,” Critical Ethnic Studies Journal 2, no. 1 (2016).

32. Wake, American Survivors, 4, 330n11.

33. See Chosenjin Kyosei Renko Shinso Chosadan, Chosenjin kyosei renko.

34. Kazue Suyeishi, interviewed by author, December 31, 2015, Torrance, CA.

35. Dean Toji, “Hibakusha: Japanese American Atomic Bomb Survivors,” East Wind: Politics and Culture of Asians in the U.S. 1, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1982): 3; “Americans Recall Seeing the Horrors of Hiroshima,” Albuquerque Journal, July 30, 1995.

36. “Hiroshima’s Americans: The Forgotten Victims,” Austin American-Statesman, April 9, 1972; “In The Shadow of Hiroshima,” San Francisco Examiner, August 13, 1978.

37. Rinjiro Sodei, Were We the Enemy?: American Survivors of Hiroshima (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 82.

38. “The Secret Sufferers,” Newsweek, April 10, 1972; “The Forgotten Victims: Americans at Hiroshima,” San Francisco Examiner, April 11, 1972; Sodei, Were We the Enemy?, 80–82.

39. “U.S. Victims of Hiroshima Bombing Plea for Aid,” Boston Globe, April 10, 1972; Sodei, Were We the Enemy?, 82–86.

40. “U.S. Victims of Hiroshima.”

41. Sodei, Were We the Enemy?, 85; “The Secret Sufferers.”

42. “85 A-Bomb Survivors in L.A Seek Aid,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1971; “Americans Who Became Hiroshima Bomb Victims,” Deseret News, April 17, 1972.

43. “Americans at Hiroshima Become Forgotten Victims,” Pottstown Mercury, April 19, 1972.

44. United States Congress, “Proceedings and Debates of the 93rd Congress, First Session, January 3, 1973” Congressional Record, Bound Edition, Volume 119, Part 1 (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1973), 65; United States Congress, “Proceedings and Debates of the 93rd Congress, First Session, January 24, 1973,” Congressional Record, Bound Edition, Volume 119, Part 2 (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1973), 2150.

45. “Survivors Suffer,” Scranton Tribune, August 14, 1975.

46. Ibid.

47. United States Congress, “Proceedings and Debates of the 97th Congress, January 6, 1981” Congressional Record, Bound Edition, Volume 127, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981), 221.

48. United States Congress, “Proceedings and Debates of the 97th Congress, January 22, 1981” Congressional Record, Bound Edition, Volume 127, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981), 722.

49. Sodei, Were We the Enemy?, 151–52.

50. Pub.L.100–383, title I, August 10, 1988, 102 Stat. 904.

51. Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 334–35; Wake, American Survivors, 170–71.

52. Leif-Eric Easley, “Obama’s Nuclear Legacy: Reconciliation and Nonproliferation in Asia after Hiroshima,” The Asian Institute for Policy Studies Issue Brief, October 2016.

53. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan at Hiroshima Peace Memoria,” May 27, 2016 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/ 2016/05/27/remarks-president-obama-and-prime-minister-abe-Japan-hiroshima-peace.

54. In conceptualizing the invisibility, statelessness, and “rightlessness” of Nisei victims of the U.S. atomic bombing, I have benefitted from engaging A. Naomi Paik’s work on the U.S. prison camps since World War II. Paik argues that “rightlessness” has been rendered “exceptional and “external” to the dominant narrative of the United States as a champion of rights home and abroad. However, Paik also demonstrates that rightless people have found ways to expose this contradiction inherent in the national narrative by asserting their voices in alternative creative spaces that complicate the meaning of rights and the power of the state. See A. Naomi Paik, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

55. John W. Dower, “Forward,” in Sodei, Were We the Enemy?, ix–xii.

56. United Nations General Assembly, United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their total elimination, New York, March 27–31 and June 7-July 2017 (New York: United Nations, 2017).

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Michael R. Jin

Michael R. Jin is Assistant Professor of Global Asian Studies and History at the University of Illinois Chicago. He is the author of Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in the Pacific (Stanford University Press, 2022).

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