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Hibakusha: Survivor continues fight for recognition, support for Korean victims

Keisaburo Toyonaga touches one of the rose of Sharon trees planted beside the Korean hibakusha memorial at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, in Hiroshima's Chuo Ward, on April 28, 2017. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- "If they knew how much (Korean atomic bomb survivors) have suffered, they wouldn't be able to do something like this," says 81-year-old Keisaburo Toyonaga as he places his hand on a rose of Sharon tree wrapped in clear protective wrapping.

Three young trees are planted beside a memorial for Korean atomic bomb survivors -- or hibakusha -- at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. On April 5, 2017, they were found vandalized, with their branches slashed and the trunks of two trees cut all the way to the base. There are still no leads in the case.

The rose of Sharon, a variety of hibiscus, is South Korea's national flower. The trees at the monument were planted around 2013, brought from South Korea by former South Korean Consul General in Hiroshima Sin Hyeong-geun. Sin's father Yeong-su experienced the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, and had acted as the head of the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims.

Toyonaga himself was born in Yokohama but moved to Hiroshima at the age of 3. He was 9 years old when the bomb fell, and he has devoted 45 years to supporting atomic bomb survivors in South Korea, even serving as the head of the Hiroshima branch of the same association for Korean hibakusha up until May 2016.

"(Vandalizing the trees) tramples over the memory of Yeong-su and others who led the relief effort for atomic bomb survivors in South Korea," Toyonaga laments.

When Toyonaga was a teacher at a private high school in 1971, the night before he was to leave for South Korea for training, he caught a news program featuring a self-proclaimed hibakusha with his left ear appearing to have melted to scar tissue, impassionedly pleading his painful predicament. "There were people like that?" thought Toyonaga. The man on television had been Sin Yeong-su.

During his visit to South Korea, Toyonaga made his way to the headquarters of the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, located in a small shack on a back street in Seoul. Several members of the organization requested Toyonaga's help supporting the victims who had been cast aside by the governments of both Japan and South Korea. He began helping people acquire health booklets officially recognizing them as hibakusha, among other support activities. Toyonaga even traveled as far as Kochi Prefecture to ask Yeong-su's former boss to act as a witness for Yeong-su to be recognized as a hibakusha.

Currently, hibakusha in South Korea are eligible to receive about the same support as hibakusha in Japan. Toyonaga's biggest worry is the immeasurable number of hibakusha residing in North Korea. This month alone, North Korea, which has been putting its energy into developing nuclear missiles, has conducted tests of a variety of new missile types one after the other. Meanwhile, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is warning of a possible military strike against North Korea. Toyonaga can't help but think, "There must be no one in that country who can come forward and say 'I am a hibakusha.'"

After taking a six-month break, Toyonaga resumed his activities giving testimony about his war experience as well as the suffering of Korean hibakusha last September. On May 11, Toyonaga stood before a group of roughly 30 junior high students visiting Hiroshima from Tokyo.

"There are hibakusha in both South and North Korea," he says. "Even in their home countries, they experienced marriage discrimination and could not receive aid from the Japanese government for a long time." Continuing to tell younger generations why Koreans were at the sites of the atomic bomb blasts and if they are still suffering is the ultimate form of "support" Toyonaga tells himself that he can offer. (By Naohiro Yamada, Hiroshima Bureau)

(This is Part 2 of a 3-part series.)

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