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Hibakusha: Determined to realize wishes of A-bomb victims and fight insanity

Takeshi Yamakawa looks at the displays at Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki on Nov. 9, 2017. Behind him is a photo of Sumiteru Taniguchi, with burns all over his back. (Mainichi)

NAGASAKI -- It was late September when Takeshi Yamakawa, an atomic bomb survivor, held a press conference to announce that he was now the head of an organization of Nagasaki city residents against nuclear testing.

The group, whose activities Yamakawa for years helped organize, holds a sit-in whenever a nuclear test is conducted somewhere around the world. Sumiteru Taniguchi, who had become a symbolic figure among Nagasaki atomic bombing victims -- or "hibakusha," as they are commonly known -- had long served as leader of the group, but died in late August of cancer.

"I want to carry on the tenacity with which Taniguchi fought for the eradication of nuclear weapons," Yamakawa told the press conference. His stern expression betrayed his determination.

Yamakawa was exposed to the bomb when he was 8 years old, approximately 4.3 kilometers from the bomb's hypocenter. Later in life, he spent 36 years as an elementary school teacher, putting special effort into teaching the importance of peace. He had served as a leading member of the organization of Nagasaki city residents against nuclear testing since 1997.

Taniguchi, meanwhile, had been exposed to the atomic bomb some 1.8 kilometers from the hypocenter at age 16, and suffered burns over his entire back. Just once, Yamakawa touched that heavily scarred back. It was when the two had traveled to Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2002 to speak to people about their A-bomb experiences. At the inn where they spent the night, Taniguchi called Yamakawa to his room and asked him to rub medication into this back.

Taniguchi took off his yukata, and lay on the futon mattress face down. The burned skin on his back was taut, and had small holes in it. Yamakawa remembers thinking that it looked like the surface of the moon. When he cautiously began rubbing medicated cream into Taniguchi's back, he found the skin to be silky.

Having spent a year and nine months face down after he was exposed to the bomb, the flesh on Taniguchi's left breast had shrunk, making his ribs stick out. Yamakawa could see Taniguchi's heart beating. "How did he survive, having suffered this much damage?" Yamakawa thought at the time.

The last time Taniguchi participated in a sit-in as a member of the residents' group was Sept. 18, 2016. The sit-in was in protest of North Korea's fifth nuclear test. The previous day, Taniguchi, who was unwell, called Yamakawa to say that he wouldn't be taking part in the sit-in. But the next day, there Taniguchi was at Nagasaki Peace Park, with a microphone in his hand. "This is intolerable, when the world is moving toward banning nuclear weapons." Yamakawa says he felt Taniguchi showed frightening drive and doggedness.

In September, shortly after Taniguchi's death, North Korea went ahead with another nuclear test. In the 43 years since August 1974, when Yamakawa and his fellow hibakusha began the sit-ins to protest nuclear testing by the U.S., the Soviet Union and France, the group has staged 402 sit-ins. Many of the people who took part in the sit-ins in the past have passed away. More recently, ordinary Nagasaki residents and even high schoolers participate in the sit-ins with the hibakusha, but Yamakawa feels strongly that he must stand at the forefront of the protest.

"We cannot lose against the insanity that is nuclear weapons," he says.

(This is the fourth part of a series.)

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