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Hibakusha: Undying hope for a world without nuclear weapons

A nurse removes an intravenous drip from Tsuboi at the hospital he has gone to for over 20 years, in Hiroshima's Saeki Ward on Jan. 25. (Mainichi)

The leader of one of the world's nuclear powers has changed.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, who advocated a "world without nuclear weapons" and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has ended his term in office without substantial progress on the elimination of nuclear weapons. And now it is difficult to read the true intentions of his successor Donald Trump. Amid confusion over the nuclear issue, the Mainichi in this series of articles is lending an ear to the voices of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha. The first installment begins with a survivor who grasped Obama's hand in Hiroshima, and renewed his hope in eliminating nuclear weapons.

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In the early hours of Jan. 21 Japanese time, 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi intently watched the inauguration speech of the United States' new president, Donald Trump, on television.

"What does a person who should think about the world have to say? I don't want to miss a word," he said.

Tsuboi, a resident of Hiroshima's Nishi Ward, was exposed to radiation during the atomic bombing of the city on Aug. 6, 1945. He didn't sleep until 4 a.m. on the day of Trump's speech. He had hoped that Trump would touch on the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the 16-minute speech seemed to be all about "America first."

Tsuboi wondered about this president being left with the nuclear button. The radiation released in the bombing of Hiroshima continues to eat away at his body. That's precisely why he felt angered at Trump suggesting during his presidential campaign that Japan defend itself with nuclear weapons.

"Damn it. Does he know we exist?" Tsuboi muttered.

For over 20 years, Tsuboi has received intravenous drips at a hospital near his home, and he has had more than 400 hospital visits. For 30 minutes, he lies on the same bed. "When I get this (drip), I think, 'OK, I'll hang in there next week,'" he says. He suffers from several types of cancer, and has been on the brink of death three times. "I'm a phoenix," he jokes. But he can't hide his weakened state. In the past Tsuboi had traditionally spent the year-end and New Year period with his three children and seven grandchildren, with 15 people around the table. But this time his family urged him to rest and so he spent the period in his bedroom.

In his bag, Tsuboi carries around a photo. It shows the moment he shook hands with Barack Obama during Obama's visit to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016 -- the first by a sitting U.S. president.

"His hand was thick and warm. Simply by clasping it I felt directly that he was a person walking on the same path," Tsuboi says.

Tsuboi's hopes were high, but the path of a nuclear power is not easily changed. In March this year, negotiations on the conclusion of a treaty against nuclear weapons will begin at the United Nations, but last year the United States opposed a resolution on the commencement of such negotiations. He saw the news that Japan followed suit. "Stupid," he said.

"By just taking a quick look at the A-bomb museum and hearing a bit from me, you can't go around thinking you understand the damage of nuclear weapons," Tsuboi says. He still harbors some frustration, but hopes that Obama will visit Hiroshima again.

"I want him to speak across the world about the path that humans should travel on, and I want to aim for a 'world without nuclear weapons' together with him," Tsuboi said.

In Japan, Tsuboi is unsatisfied with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who should have shared the same thoughts on the elimination of nuclear weapons in front of the cenotaph for victims in Hiroshima when Obama visited.

"Can't we think independently as an A-bombed country?" he asks. "All he does are things countering the feelings of hibakusha." Tsuboi questions why bridges aren't being built between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

While Tsuboi's bitterness toward the United States has eased over time, his memories of the day of the atomic bombing have grown clear. He remembers a girl in tears, running through the city that burned around them; the smiles of three classmates he had told, "Let's meet up again at lunch" -- his last words to them; a woman who was trapped under a telegraph pole, repeatedly crying, "Help me."

"Why have I remained alive until the age of 91?" Tsuboi asks himself.

"I might have been allowed to live to tell people about the lives of those who were robbed of life in the atomic bombing," he says. (By Naohiro Yamada, Hiroshima Bureau)

(This is Part 1 of an ongoing series.)

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