Hibakujumoku, by Maxwell Suzuki
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Hibakujumoku is a Japanese term for trees that have survived the blast of an atomic bomb. The same blast that vaporized men, women, and children spared these trees. Or rather, the trees were too stubborn to die. Many of them had already lived hundreds of years, a simple explosion wasn’t going to be their final moments. However, the instantaneous heat of the blast and the radioactive fallout created irreparable damage to them.
The trees were believed to be dead after the blast due to their monochrome hues. That is until months or even years later the trees were suddenly growing green pricks of life from their stems.
May 5th, 2009
Yesterday I tryed to run away to Dads. I got caught by mom. We went back to the garage and mom took me and grabbed me like a hug but harder. So I went to a friends house and had dinner their. and had to go back to moms. My parents divorced 3 years ago. I am 10. My yuonger brother is 9. I really want to go to dads.
Even so, the radiation had molded the branches into cockeyed fractals and twisted the leaves into distorted echoes. Some attributed these drastic changes to the infected water or irradiated soil. Though we now know the radiation of the blast corrupted their DNA by smashing their unique chains of proteins into mush.
Sometimes the changes were innocuous: a bulbous trunk, or a red shifting of color. Other times its effects were less benign: a pruning of the tree’s own limbs, or a twisting of its spine. Yet, time was the only thing that could determine which mutation would become which.
May 6th, 2009
I found a tape in Moms drawer and listened to it at school. I found out Mom was taping my calls to Dad. Yesterday my teacher gave me a book about stress. It has sort a helped. dads on a trip so I can’t run away.
[Deleted] Subject: I Don’t Love You
This is Maxwell, your son. I am an adult now if that matters to you. I have taken time out of my busy day to email you. This is in regard to your inaction as a parent.
I am only contacting you because my therapist suggests I write you a letter. She says I don’t have to send it. So, I won’t. It is simply meant to let out my feelings regarding events that occurred over a decade ago. So here I am, disregarding my responsibilities to do this stupid exercise.
I want you to know I don’t love you. I have spent more of my life without you, than I have with you. And yes, legally you’re my mother, but it has never seemed that way to me.
I consider Marie as the only maternal figure in my life. I have seen the first five Sharknado movies with her. I went to Las Vegas to gamble with her. I have had Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays with her. I have hugged her and told her that I am gay. These are the types of things a mother does.
For a typical adult human, one can sustain 100 rads for a short time without incurring harmful effects from radiation. However, a dose of 1,000 rads, known as Acute Radiation Syndrome, can cause detrimental health effects from vomiting to failure of the digestive tract. Luckily, this isn’t a problem for most people because they have never been under the halo of an atomic bomb or inside the stomach of a failing nuclear reactor.
May 17th, 2009
O.K. do you want to know what happened? Whell first off mom kicked dad out of the house. He had to go to California for a mounth. Then when he came back their was a protective order. so dad had to go into this smelly apartment. Finally we got to see dad! My older brother gets to stay at dads because he fought a lot with mom. Today I tried calling dad but mom took the cord connector out so I couldn’t.
The same cannot be said for those living in Hiroshima during 1945. Studies have shown that over 10,000 rads were experienced either from the initial explosion or from particles trickling down from the atmosphere. Symptoms ranged from hair loss, to skin discoloration, to pustules, and to death.
Upon immediate explosion, 80,000 people were killed. Another 20-40,000 people succumbed to burns or radiation poisoning within the following months. Though, the exact number is unknown.
May 31st, 2009
Okay so last night I ran away to dads at 2 o’clock. 6 hours later dad told me I had to go back so I did. at 9:00am. I asked mom if I could call dad to see if I had scouts. She said that she would find out. I got so mad that I went out to the garden and started destroying the plants. She came out and yelled at me. Then she ran to me slaped me in the face and gave me a bloody nose. and then she grabbed my wrists and tryed to pull me inside. That’s when my younger brother came out and started to yell and help me out. I bit her wrist. Mom’s grip let go on my wrists and I ran to a friends house.
[Deleted] Subject: I’m Not Like You
I only want closure. I’ve spent the last ten years wondering if you cared for me and whether it would be worthwhile to contact you. Odd how your own son has to reach out.
I noticed when you stopped sending low-effort letters. I didn’t want to read about how your life was going if you weren’t concerned about mine, anyway. But I didn’t know the last time I’d see your face was when you drove us to Dad’s after the court decided you’d become an unfit parent. Maybe I would’ve studied your eyes just a little bit more so I could point to the differences in our features.
It scares me that I’m as much of you as I’m of Dad. I’m afraid that one day when I have kids, I’ll manipulate and abandon them just as quickly as you did. I know it’s in my genes to look like you—to be like you. And so, I’m contacting you because I know I’m not like you.
Even after all of the destruction, 0.7 miles away from the hypocenter of Hiroshima, a grand Ginkgo tree continued to stand. At the time of the explosion, the tree’s outer bark had been singed off and a large gash paralleling the trunk formed. Even now if one looks closely enough, the scar can be seen among a thick armor riddled with coals. Though from a distance, the swift strokes of watercolor disguise its own tempered past.
Incidentally, the Ginkgo had been growing right in front of a temple, protecting the sacred hallways from tilting too far back. When time came to expand the temple, the architects thanked the tree for its protection by keeping the Ginkgo and building a staircase around the trunk.
Both are still standing to this day.
June 2nd, 2009
Today I talked to child sivices. and told them everthing. then mom said we could go to dad’s. So we did.
Gingko trees are an ancient Asian species believed to be 270 million years old. The secret to their success is their ability to adapt to nearly any condition thrown at them. This is why they can be found lining New York City sidewalks and providing shade to Buddhist temples. It is predicted that these hardy trees have the potential to exist for millions of more years, continuing to etch the skyline with their living fossils.
[Sent] Subject: I Want to Love You
I want to love you, but I can’t. There’s not a Japanese term for trees that have survived multiple atomic bombs. That’s because there have been none. I want to love you, but it’s because I’m trying to make you love me back.
It’s okay, though. I’m doing fine without you. I wanted to contact you to show how well it’s going and how much you missed out on. I wonder if you’d even care. You’ve got your own family to worry about, anyway. How have you treated them? Do you know what it takes to be a mom now? Do you love them?
I’m graduating from college soon and I did it without you. I’ll take on the rest of my life in the same way. Maybe when you grow too old to care for yourself, you will ask your children to help you. Who will come to your side when you do?
I hope you’re a good mom now. Not for the sake of me, but for the rest of your family. I hope you hug them and tell them you’d fly to the moon and back for them. I hope that all the damage you did to my family, you repair yours just as much.
I hope you have realized what love is.
Suzuki means bell tree in Japanese. I wasn’t aware of what the strokes meant until my older brother showed up on Christmas with it tattooed across his shoulder. ‘木’ ki, meaning tree or wood and ‘鈴’ Suzu, meaning bell or tin. It is a name that has been tested by time, seen the triumph and fall of emperors, and only gotten stronger.
Six years after my older brother got his tattoo, my younger brother and I got the exact same one on our own shoulders during a trip to San Francisco. Two hundred dollars later, we had ink that permanently said we were trees. After a day of it bleeding like a stream of charcoal tears, the tattoo had soon set its roots in my body. I knew then that nothing could kill it.
Now 75 years later, hibakujumoku are described as a symbol of hope and resilience for those who have witnessed mushroom clouds. There is a constant effort to make the trees permanent far after their trauma even if it means framing their pain in black ink. I know now this is what it means to be a hibakujumoku.
Maxwell Suzuki is a recent USC graduate with a bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering. He is currently working on a novel and lives in Los Angeles. Some of his other works can be found at www.lindenandbuckskin.com.
Lawrence Bridges is best known for work in the film and literary world. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums, Flip Days, and Brownwood. As a filmmaker, he created a series of literary documentaries for the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative, which include profiles of Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Cynthia Ozick.