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Hibakusha: Ex-pro baseballer wants help for fellow Korean A-bomb survivors

Isao Harimoto is pictured during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

A melancholy Korean folk tune sung by drunken -- and sometimes teary -- adults at a local festival in Hiroshima not long after the 1945 atomic bombing of the city still lingers in the ears of Isao Harimoto, a former pro baseball player with a record 3,085 career hits -- and an A-bomb survivor.

The festival was held in front of a row house where his family had lived. "Riverside willows in spring, shall we bind your rustling leaves tightly?" the lyrics of the song roughly went, as a young Harimoto munched on steamed pork served to festivalgoers.

"I didn't have much ethnic awareness back then," Harimoto, 77, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan, recalled during a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at his residence in Tokyo.

He was exposed to radiation from the Aug. 6, 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima at his home at the time about 2.3 kilometers east of the hypocenter when he was 5 years old. His eldest sister perished in the bombing. His father subsequently traveled back to the Korean Peninsula to sort out his assets but never returned as he died there. His mother was unable to read or write in Japanese, and according to his elder brother, she was yearning to return to the peninsula. One day, a ship that used to cross the Sea of Genkai to the peninsula stopped making port calls at Hiroshima, and his family ended up settling in the row house there that accommodated fellow Korean residents. His mother opened a food stall to raise her three children.

Harimoto took up baseball at age 10, around the time the Korean War broke out in 1950, which only cemented the division of the two Koreas. While devoting himself to practicing baseball, he felt subtle changes around him. Every now and then, he heard the sounds of someone being slapped on the cheek beyond the thin wall of the row house, where a pig farming couple lived. When he asked the reason, the wife replied, "My hubbie has been going through a hard time here in Japan. I'm fine if he'll feel better by hitting me." Her story ached Harimoto's young heart.

"Looking back, I can now understand how they felt at the time. They may well have thought that they would rather return to their home country to live with their heads held high, than being discriminated against in Japan," Harimoto, whose Korean name is Jang Hun, said.

Following the Korean War armistice agreement in 1953, one of his acquaintances returned to North Korea around 1960, when the project to repatriate Korean residents in Japan to the country went into full swing.

"If my letter includes the phrase 'blue skies,' do not come," the acquaintance told his family before leaving for North Korea. Whenever he sent a postcard to his family left in Japan, that phrase was contained. "Why did his family allow him to go?" Harimoto's mother grouched, while she packed everything from canned food to futons to send to the acquaintance.

Today, North Korea poses a security threat to the region with its missile and nuclear programs. As an A-bomb survivor, Harimoto cannot tolerate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who decided to go ahead with an onslaught of ballistic missile launches and a sixth nuclear test in September. At the same time, he is also bewildered by the responses taken by other countries -- the United States beefing up its military drills and Japan stepping up its pressure on the North by calling upon other countries to implement sanctions against Pyongyang. Harimoto wonders how his fellow Koreans are doing in an increasingly isolated country where they returned to live with dignity.

"I hope that whatever countries become willing to help them out join hands to lead North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons for the sake of the happiness of its people," Harimoto said. (Story by Tetsuya Hirakawa, City News Department, Osaka Head Office; photo by Masaru Nishimoto, Photo Group)

(This is the third part of a series.)

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