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Hibakusha: A-bomb survivor and longtime activist sees glimmer of hope for nuke ban

Nagasaki A-bomb survivor and Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations Secretary General Terumi Tanaka is seen speaking about activism to abolish nuclear weapons, in Tokyo's Minato Ward in October 2016. (Mainichi)

On Oct. 28 Japan time, the United Nations General Assembly committee on disarmament and international security voted overwhelmingly to launch negotiations next year on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The moment the vote was taken, Nagasaki A-bomb survivor Terumi Tanaka, 84, was at a high school reunion. After the event, however, he quickly switched hats and began accepting news media queries on the U.N. decision in his role as secretary general of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo).

While he told reporters how deeply moved he was that "they've really started to do something," he also called Japan's vote against the U.N. decision "shameful."

Back in May 2007, Tanaka requested and was granted the chance to speak before a committee to prepare for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference in Vienna. There, he spoke of nuclear arms as "weapons of the devil," and of their terrible inhumanity. However, international political discussions on nuclear disarmament never seemed to go very deep.

"Why didn't they understand? I was so frustrated, so frustrated," Tanaka recalls. He saw no clear path to the abolishment of atomic arms, and "to be honest, there were times when I was just very tired."

But then at the 2012 Preparatory Committee for the NPT Review Conference, things began to change in a big way. For the first time ever, a declaration on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons was presented to the conference and approved by 16 countries. It had been five years since Tanaka's plea to the NPT conference, and finally something was happening. His spirits rose with the thought that his last bit of effort had paid off.

Tanaka will soon celebrate 20 years as Nihon Hidankyo secretary general. This year, he has also put his energies into Hibakusha Appeal, an international petition for a global nuclear weapons ban treaty. As of March this year, the average age of hibakusha with official A-bomb survivor health booklets was 80.86.

The U.N. resolution has given a glimpse of hope to Tanaka, who was starting to think that having nuclear weapons abolished while the hibakusha were still alive might be difficult.

"If a treaty can be put together, then there should be a way forward (to a ban). At the very least, I want to make this a reality," Tanaka said.

At 84, Tanaka has spoken on disarmament both inside and outside Japan, and encouraged others to join the atomic arms ban petition. In late September this year, he attended the general meeting of the International Peace Bureau in Berlin, and then went on to Britain to speak with students at the University of Bradford's renowned peace studies and international development department. Then, just hours after his return to Japan on Oct. 7, he was answering reporters' questions at a news conference at Nihon Hidankyo's Tokyo office.

"For us hibakusha getting on in years, this petition drive really is our last call for disarmament," says Tanaka. "We hope people understand that we have spent our lives calling for this, and that we want to shift public opinion." (By Sachi Fukushima, Tokyo City News Department)

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Terumi Tanaka was at home about 3.2 kilometers from the hypocenter when the Nagasaki A-bomb went off. His aunt and four other family members were killed in the blast. Tanaka went on to become an assistant professor at Tohoku University's school of engineering, as well as secretary general of Nihon Hidankyo from 1985 to 1988, and again from 2000 to the present. He now lives in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture.

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