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Hibakusha: Let's begin with an apology

Park Nam-joo (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- "A peaceful world, and a feeling of gratitude."

    "Like others, I often speak out on behalf of these things," says Park Nam-joo, 83, a second-generation Zainichi Korean from Hiroshima who is a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor).

    "But actually, I think that the reality is different," she continued. "Doesn't this imply that we should forget our painful experiences? This is what I was asking myself yesterday."

    Park spoke these words to me when I met with her at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on April 9 -- two days prior to the scheduled visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Hiroshima.

    Kerry and his entourage's itinerary included a visit to the park, as well as a tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the presentation of a flower offering to the cenotaph for atomic bombing victims. And with an announcement that the U.S. government was considering President Barack Obama's Hiroshima visit, signs were underway that it might actually become a reality.

    Park gazed outside from where we were sitting in the museum's first floor lounge area. The spring sun was shining brightly, as were the fresh new green leaves on the trees. Numerous foreign visitors were walking by, and there were audible sounds of laughter.

    Her expression somber, Park continued by saying, "We cannot live our lives unless we forget about our painful past experiences. But at the same time, the situation in our world today is such that we risk repeating the same thing again -- which means that we must tell the next generation the story of what happened in Hiroshima."

    After the war, at age 17, Park married a man six years her senior and went on to have four children. While raising them, she earned a living through pursuits such as raising pigs. In 2003, following her husband's death, she began speaking out about her hibakusha experience.

    And it is a hideous experience that is burned into her memory still today.

    A first-year student at a girl's school at the time, she was riding a streetcar around 1.8 kilometers from the hypocenter of the atomic bomb when there was a sudden flash of light and a thunderous noise. Covered in blood, she fled to the banks of the Ota River.

    Along the way, she saw numerous people move their arms, whose skin hung down in flaps, up and down like birds as they ran.

    The war ended nine days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Park's home had been destroyed by the blast, and so at the time, she was staying on a dry riverbed that had turned into a site for burning the corpses of the dead.

    People around her had begun saying that the war had ended faster because of the atomic bombs. And at first, Park believed it. She bore no strong hatred toward the United States; she was too busy trying to survive. She did not even have the energy to look behind her at what had happened.

    Today, however, things are different. The more that she learned about the situation of the time, the more she realizes that "there was no need to drop the atomic bombs."

    "Japan had no fighting power left, and yet an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima," she said, her voice conveying a painful awareness. "It was a brutal act just like a massacre. And despite knowing the power of the bomb, the United States went on to drop a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. I can never forgive the U.S. for this."

    Park also feels that Japan bears responsibility for not stopping the war despite its position in the war clearly worsening.

    And while she welcomes the visit by U.S. President Obama to Hiroshima, Park feels that he should grieve the dead -- as well as offer an apology to the hibakusha who continue to suffer still today.

    "Apologizing offers an opportunity for rapprochement among both sides," she noted. "The United States should apologize to Japan, and Japan should also apologize to Asian countries for its aggression. I think that this is where things should begin."

    This summer -- 71 years after her hibakusha experience -- is one that Park says she hopes will be the beginning of a new future. (By Yuji Ishikawa, Hiroshima Bureau)

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