Midori Naka was a popular stage actress in Japan. She and her troupe were in Hiroshima in August of 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Naka was less than a mile from the blast. She survived the explosion, but died 18 days later and was the first person ever whose cause of death was listed as radiation poisoning. Specimens of her tissues were taken during the autopsy, as Japanese, and later American, scientists wanted to understand what the new weapons could do to a human being. These specimens are now in the possession of Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine.
It might seem obvious that Naka’s remains would be in Hiroshima, and in an institution devoted to understanding and treating radiation sickness. But those two glass jars arrived there only by a strange and circuitous route, after having spent decades abroad along with thousands of other body parts, wet specimens, and autopsy materials from the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a unique collection that existed in a medical and political gray area. Like the relics of saints, these body parts took on a strange afterlife: They resonated with invisible power, and their significance changed over time as they were moved through different locations and contexts. Irreplaceable and beyond value, they were coveted, fought over, held up as a singular archive of a world-changing event, and then, gradually, mostly forgotten.
The remains of atomic bomb victims were useful to study, but they were also human remains that had a spiritual tie to their families and to Japan. Read the story of the body parts taken from the first atomic bomb victims at Atlas Obscura.
(Image credit: Delphine Lee for Atlas Obscura)