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Hibakusha: Aging A-bomb survivor on mission to keep painting

Hiroshi Hara works on a painting of the atomic bomb dome, while referring to a previous painting, in Hiroshima's Aki Ward, on July 17, 2017. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- With just a few days left until the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 85-year-old Hiroshi Hara is keen to finish his latest painting of the city's iconic atomic bomb dome in time.

    To date, Hara, who is an A-bomb survivor, or hibakusha, has completed more than 3,400 paintings of the dome, spanning a period of more than 30 years -- but this time he's struggling. Perched in front of a roughly 1.6-meter-high, approximately 1-meter-wide canvas inside his art studio at home, the blank unfinished parts of the painting stand out quite prominently. "I must finish this by Aug. 6," Hara says determinedly.

    Hiroshi Hara's first watercolor painting of the atomic bomb dome, drawn on Aug. 6, 1984, is seen. (Image courtesy of Hiroshi Hara)

    Over the years, the octogenarian has frequented the city's peace memorial park on an almost daily basis, mainly drawing pictures of the dome on square message cards. However, since about two years ago his physical condition has worsened, making it harder for him to paint pictures.

    In February this year, he fell over in his bath at home, and was found on the following morning by his eldest daughter Kumiko Sunami, 52. His temperature dropped rapidly, and at one point, he was at real risk -- leading him to be fed through a gastrostomy tube in order to receive sufficient nourishment. He was hospitalized for two months, and then entered a nursing home in spring, where he has found it difficult to keep painting.

    Nevertheless, as Hara explains, "Painting the dome is something that's on my mind," and in June, he applied his paintbrush to a draft painting consisting of penciled outlines. Once or twice a week, his daughter drives him from his nursing home to his home studio, where he typically spends about three to four hours in front of a canvas that is more than 30 times larger than one of the square cards. He says he wants to donate his next painting to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as soon as it's finished.

    Commenting on her father's quest to keep on painting, Kumiko says, "At one point, I thought he would be confined to bed, but he seems to have a real sense of mission regarding these paintings. He wants to paint, and I want to satisfy my father's request."

    For Hara, painting is essentially his way of reacting to his horrific experiences of the atomic bombing in 1945. On the day the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, he was at his relatives' home outside the city, but the next day, he ventured into the city -- where numerous people begged him for water. Bodies were floating down the river, and soldiers were burning piles of corpses. A considerable number of mobilized youngsters, who were the same age as Hara, died as a result of the bomb. "I was lucky enough to survive as a hibakusha. As a result, it is my duty to portray the horror of the bomb by painting pictures of the dome. Therefore, I will keep on painting."

    In this past July, a United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons was adopted, but nuclear nations and countries that fall under the nuclear umbrella will not likely ratify this historic treaty. The fact that Japan didn't sign the pact seriously worries Hara. "When I think about nuclear weapons, the part of my body where the gastrostomy tube was inserted hurts," he reveals.

    Hiroshi Hara's 3000th painting, drawn on Aug. 6, 2011, is seen. (Image courtesy of Hiroshi Hara)

    At the time when Hara first started painting, he was healthy, and was actively involved in campaigns to ban nuclear weapons. He told numerous children about his experiences, met with other A-bomb survivors in North Korea, and has even visited a plutonium factory in the U.S. However, nowadays, his body doesn't function as well as it used to, and he is finding it difficult to perfect his latest painting, having already repainted it three times.

    Hara is frustrated both by the lack of progress in trying to achieve a completely nuclear-free world and the slow progress of his painting. "What should I do? It's not working," says Hara -- as he leans his small frame toward the canvas once again, determined to keep on with his mission.

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