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Hibakusha: Breaking down a wall of discrimination to help Korean A-bomb survivors

For 79-year-old Keisaburo Toyonaga, this year, the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a moving year.

    Toyonaga, a resident of Hiroshima's Aki Ward, has spent the last 44 years supporting Korean survivors of the bombings, or hibakusha, and on Sept. 8 this year, Japan's Supreme Court in Tokyo handed down a ruling paving the way for full coverage of the medical costs of about 4,280 hibakusha living overseas.

    In principle, holders of hibakusha health handbooks in Japan don't have to pay medical fees. For hibakusha living overseas, however, there is an upper limit on the subsidies they can receive. This means differences arise in the amount people pay depending on the medical systems in the countries where they reside. The top court's ruling signaled success for Toyonaga's activities, in which he had asked for equal support for hibakusha living in Japan and abroad.

    Returning to Hiroshima, the faces of the plaintiffs who had died before the court handed down its ruling crossed Toyonaga's mind.

    "I felt happy that something which was only natural had been granted, and sorry about the battle having gone on so long. I was overwhelmed with emotion," he said.

    Toyonaga's activities stemmed from his memories as a child on the discriminating side. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, he was in a town 9 kilometers from the bomb's hypocenter. He returned to the devastated city and two days later was reunited with his mother and younger brother. Later, the family moved to the place where his mother grew up, near which there was a settlement of Korean residents. Even in his eyes as a child, the people dressed in worn-out clothing looked pitiful.

    "At school we avoided them and talked about them behind their backs -- even though we didn't know their historical background. I was cruel," he recalls.

    After Toyonaga became a high school teacher, he learned of the difficulties that Korean people in Japan faced, including discrimination in finding jobs. Before he went on an inspection tour to South Korea in 1971, he saw news on television highlighting the plight of A-bomb survivors in the country. In South Korea, he visited an organization in Seoul representing hibakusha, and was greeted by staff members in an office with a creaking floor.

    "Neither Japan nor South Korea provide any support. We want help," Toyonaga remembers being told. He was swayed by the voices of these people who had been left by the wayside. Afterward, he contacted the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, which had been set up in Osaka, and formed a branch in Hiroshima with friends.

    Toyonaga scrambled to help people who came to Japan to apply for hibakusha health handbooks, finding witnesses for them, accompanying them to hospitals and negotiating with government offices. At one point he returned his handbook to the Hiroshima Municipal Government over differences in its treatment of Japanese and non-Japanese hibakusha, asking, "How are they different from Japanese hibakusha?" In 1993, Toyonaga stepped down as a teacher at the age of 57 -- before the retirement age -- to focus on his activities.

    In 2003, a decision was made to grant overseas hibakusha a health management allowance, and in 2008, the requirement of having to come to Japan to receive a handbook was abolished.

    In the past, Toyonaga frequently received telephone calls and other inquiries, but they have since subsided.

    "It's evidence that understanding toward hibakusha overseas has increased," he said.

    With the "sin of discrimination" engraved on his heart, Toyonaga has slowly broken down the walls of unfair treatment through his humble activities.

    "I've never thought of it as burdensome," he said. (By Masaki Ishikawa, Hiroshima Bureau)

    (This is the fourth part of a six-part series)

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