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Hibakusha: Passing on a global baton of peace

Hiroshima A-bomb survivor Keisaburo Toyonaga speaks to elementary school students in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on Nov. 11, 2016. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- Eighty-year-old A-bomb survivor Keisaburo Toyonaga had been confined to his home due to illness since this past spring when he saw something on the TV news that got him back out of the house and back in front of school groups, telling them about his experiences in the atomic attack on Hiroshima.

It was Sept. 9, and North Korea had just conducted its fifth nuclear weapons test. By the end of the month, Toyonaga had returned to lecturing, driving home the message: "There will be no peace if you are silent."

Toyonaga spent 45 years supporting survivors living in South Korea, helping them with applications for A-bomb victims' health booklets and other tasks. When it comes to assisting hibakusha, he says, there's no difference between North and South Koreans. However, he doesn't know how many are in North Korea.

The country conducted its first nuclear test a decade ago. Over the past decade, Toyonaga has staged sit-in protests at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. As the Kim Jong Un regime conducted more tests, the global community imposed stricter economic sanctions, increasing North Korea's international isolation.

"The hibakusha having the most trouble must be the ones in North Korea, as survivors elsewhere abroad are eligible for full medical coverage," Toyonaga observed. It bothered him intensely to think that they had been left to deal with aftereffects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all on their own.

What keeps Toyonaga pursuing this issue is the realization that, when he was a child just after World War II, he discriminated against Koreans.

Large numbers of Koreans, who had moved to Hiroshima during Japan's colonial rule of their country, were living in what is now the city's Aki Ward, which Toyonaga and his family moved in after losing their home in the atomic bombing. Toyonaga still lives in the ward today.

"It took just one look to tell they were destitute," recalls Toyonaga. "They kept pigs at their homes and many were garbage collectors, and they smelled if you got close to them." The young Toyonaga tried to avoid even interacting with the Korean residents, and he admits he flung heartless insults at them.

Toyonaga became a teacher, and first visited South Korea in 1971 for training. There, he saw firsthand how desperate the hibakusha in the country were. On his return to Japan, he established the Hiroshima chapter of the "Kankoku no genbaku higaisha o kyuen suru shimin no kai," or citizens' alliance for the support of South Korean hibakusha. He has been active in this cause ever since.

In March this year, Toyonaga had a bad reaction to larger doses of a stomach medication he had been taking for some 10 years. His breathing became irregular and his hands and legs began to shake, and for the first time in his life was taken to hospital in an ambulance. Afterwards, he found he could not venture out far, and he withdrew from his A-bomb lecturing and activities to help other hibakusha in South Korea. However, he felt strongly that no one else could talk about my experiences as a hibakusha. Thereafter, he returned to speaking.

On Oct. 12, Toyonaga was at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, there to talk to 48 elementary school sixth-graders from Osaka.

"There is something that all of you can do for peace, starting tomorrow. And that is, create a class with no discrimination," he told them, adding, with his right hand raised high, that he wanted to pass on the invisible "baton of peace." (By Masaki Ishikawa, Hiroshima Bureau)


A native of Yokohama, Keisaburo Toyonaga moved to Hiroshima with his parents at the age of 3. When he was 9 years old, he was exposed to radiation after entering an area near ground zero. After graduating from Hiroshima University, he became a Japanese-language teacher at a private high school. He resigned as head of the Hiroshima chapter of "Kankoku no genbaku higaisha o kyuen suru shimin no kai" this past May because of his illness.

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