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Hibakusha: Nagasaki doctor feels growing urgency for elimination of nuclear weapons

"Civil society must pressure the government into eliminating nuclear weapons," says Masao Tomonaga at the Megumi no Oka Nagasaki Genbaku Home in Nagasaki on Nov. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

NAGASAKI -- "You must have been in your 20s when the bomb dropped, huh?" says doctor Masao Tomonaga, honorary director of The Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Genbaku Hospital, to a woman as he sits by her bedside and examines her with his stethoscope on Nov. 8.

For about 40 years, the 74-year-old has been examining patients at the nursing home "Megumi no Oka Nagasaki Genbaku Home," where bomb survivors, or "hibakusha," can spend their golden years.

Tomonaga himself was 2 years old when the bomb fell some 2.7 kilometers from where he was -- his grandfather's house. The house was nearly destroyed by the bomb blast, but right before the building was engulfed in flames, his mother came to his rescue.

Tomonaga's grandfather was a self-employed general practice doctor. His father also researched the rapid rise of leukemia cases after the bomb fell as a doctor at both Nagasaki and Hiroshima universities. Tomonaga saw patients and researched the effects of radiation at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine, while also actively participating in efforts calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In his 40s, Tomonaga became a member of the "International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War" (IPPNW) composed of doctors from around the world.

The IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. This October, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a daughter organization to IPPNW, was also selected to receive the same prize for its efforts in the passage of the UN's Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Tomonaga's feelings, though, are complicated. Hibakusha and other supporters collected signatures requesting the formulation of the treaty to the UN, and mainly led by young people, ICAN was able to get the governments of many countries on board with the agreement. However, a key party was missing. The Japanese government opposed the treaty.

"It's true that our reach did not extend far outside of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki," laments Tomonaga, who played a central role in the collection of signatures. "We have to team up with the younger generations while we can, and create a nuclear abolition framework with which to press the Japanese government and nuclear powers to rid the world of atomic weapons.

What adds to his awareness of the issue is former Nagasaki University President Hideo Tsuchiyama, who passed away in September. Tsuchiyama often said, "In order to raise the movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons to the state level, we need objective reasoning that speaks to the international political community," and long proposed a "Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone." Tomonaga, who took classes from Tsuchiyama as a student, recalls, "Of the several dozen professors I had, he stood out from the others in his reasoned thinking."

With tensions rising over the situation with North Korea, Tomonaga warns that even in Japan, "Something of a bedrock that 'nuclear weapons are a necessary evil' is on the verge of taking shape." Losing a great leader of the Nagasaki peace movement at such a time makes Tomonaga feel all the more responsible.

He was chosen as a member of an expert conference on nuclear arms reduction to be held at the end of November in Hiroshima by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "First, Japan has to start by respecting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons," Tomonaga says of his approach to the government. "Then, we have to make progress building a nuclear free zone." (This is the first part of a series.)

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While ICAN being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was celebrated by hibakusha in Japan and other peace groups, our time left with the hibakusha is waning. With this 2017 autumn hibakusha series, we ask our readers to lend an ear to hibakusha like Masao Tomonaga, who long for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

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