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Survivor marks Hiroshima atomic bombing anniversary in Rio

Junko Watanabe, center, offers a moment of silence for victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing along with local children from a favela in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5, 2016. (Mainichi)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A Japanese atomic-bombing survivor and other peace activists offered a moment of silence here for the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing on the evening of Aug. 5 (the morning of Aug. 6 Japan time) as the flamboyant opening ceremony for the Olympic Games was under way.

"My mission is to keep telling the world that nuclear weapons cannot be tolerated," said Junko Watanabe, a 73-year-old resident of Sao Paulo and a director at Associacao Hibakusha-Brasil pela Paz, an association of A-bomb survivors in Brazil.

She and approximately 20 members of a Rio de Janeiro-based peace organization offered a one-minute silent prayer at a square in the Babilonia district, a local favela, 15 minutes into the Olympics opening ceremony on Aug. 5 local time, to coincide with 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6 Japan time -- the date and time on which the U.S. dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima 71 years ago. They prayed for a peaceful world without nuclear weapons, war or conflict.

Watanabe was 2 years old when the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima about 18 kilometers away from a shrine where she happened to be. Though she was too young to remember that day, she later learned that she was exposed to radioactive "black rain" that fell over an extensive area in the city shortly after the bombing, including the shrine. Later at age 25, she moved to Brazil as the bride of a man of Japanese descent. She didn't know that she'd been exposed to radiation until 13 years later, when her parents revealed the fact upon a temporary trip back home.

She was eventually diagnosed with hematopoiesis disorder at age 50 and was granted an A-bomb survivor's certificate from the Japanese government. Over the past decade or so, she has been sharing her bombing experience in Portuguese with students at junior and senior high schools in Sao Paulo, in the hopes that they will learn about the fears A-bomb survivors continue to have about the aftereffects of radiation exposure.

After learning that the Rio Olympics opening ceremony would coincide with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, Watanabe and other activists launched an appeal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to dedicate one minute during the ceremony for attendees to offer a prayer for world peace from South America, which has no nuclear states. Nongovernmental organizations and peace organizations provided assistance in letting their plea be heard across the globe.

Watanabe also wrote a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach, in which she identified herself as an A-bomb survivor and introduced to him the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who was exposed to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima at age 2 and died of leukemia at 12 after folding many paper cranes. Enclosed with Watanabe's letter were five paper cranes in the Olympic colors.

Although a silent prayer was not offered during the Olympic opening ceremony, many A-bomb survivors have expressed empathy toward the movement. Starting Aug. 6, Watanabe and others are to launch a full-scale signature-collecting drive calling for the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

The signature campaign is also supported by children and grandchildren of A-bomb survivors living in Japan. One of them, 24-year-old Mitsuhiro Hayashida, a graduate school student from Nagasaki and a third-generation hibakusha, said, "As storytellers living abroad, like Ms. Watanabe, grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to stage campaigns across borders."

Since 1984, when Associacao Hibakusha-Brasil pela Paz was established, about 270 residents in Brazil have been confirmed to be A-bomb survivors. However, many of them have subsequently died, bringing the number down to 99 today. So far this year, six hibakusha perished in Brazil.

"Testimonies by A-bomb survivors strike a chord with those who listen to them and inspire younger generations. I will keep on telling my bombing stories," Watanabe said. (By Tatsuya Kishi, Mainichi Shimbun)

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