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Disappearing 'hibakusha' the biggest challenge faced by nuclear disarmament conferences

Sunao Tsuboi, head of the Hiroshima chapter of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, smiles during a session of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on Nov. 29, 2017. (Mainichi)

The view of the Motoyasu River from Heiwa Bridge in Hiroshima is spectacular. Bronze-colored water can be seen flowing along a gradual curve. The sight reminds me personally of the Tigris River in Baghdad, but perhaps this is mainly because I was based in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent.

However, the comparison does not just arise from the fact I happened to work in Iraq. There are tragic similarities. The hellish war-torn scenes along the Tigris River are comparable, to an extent, to the situation along the Motoyasu River in 1945 -- in the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

If you walk across Heiwa Bridge, you will find the International Conference Center on your right. You will also be able to see Peace Memorial Park, where in May 2016 then U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a resounding speech. Where has the golden "quiet enthusiasm" that resonated so powerfully from Obama's speech gone to now?

Since the administration of President Donald Trump took over from Obama in January 2017, the promising momentum toward Obama's vision of a "nuclear-free world" seems to have bled away. The climate in Japan has changed as well. However, the wishes and drive of the atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha) are as strong as ever.

In August 1945, Sunao Tsuboi, the now 92-year-old head of the Hiroshima branch of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo), was flung 10 to 20 meters by the A-bomb shockwave. His trousers and shirt were completely burned. A dust cloud hung over the ground, making it impossible to see more than 100 meters. A female university student had lost her eyes. What on earth was happening?

Having torn off his charred clothes, Tsuboi wandered around until he ran out of energy near Miyuki Bridge about 2 kilometers south of Heiwa Bridge. Desperate to leave some kind of legacy, he picked up a pebble and carved the words "Tsuboi died here" into the pavement. That's where his memory cuts off.

In late November 2017, 72 years after the bomb, Tsuboi attended the opening session of the 27th United Nations Japan Conference on Disarmament Issues in Hiroshima. From his wheelchair, he spoke about his personal experiences of the nuclear attack to people from all over the globe.

To date, Tsuboi has been overseas 21 times, despite cancer and heart disease. He has even been to North Korea twice, campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He has an ardent desire for humankind to return to the way it was before the bomb.

After finishing his talk in November, Tsuboi left the podium, waving and expressing his gratitude to the attendees. He received a huge round of applause that seemed to go on forever. Perhaps the crowd felt as though they had just been given a huge pile of homework.

As for me, I have been attending nearly every conference on disarmament organized by the United Nations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the past 10-plus years. Listening to the hibakusha statements as well as analyses by peace activists and researchers is very educational for me.

However, if you compare expert analyses with the first-hand recollections of the hibakusha, it can sometimes feel as though the latter is akin to a powerful musical performance, while the former is like a dull critique of a musical performance. It is at times like this that I recall the sentiment of literary critic Hideo Kobayashi, who spoke about how there are beautiful 'flowers,' but there is no such thing as the beauty of a 'flower.' This makes me wonder, how can the powerful message of the 'flowers' be relayed after they have passed away? This is the biggest challenge faced by nuclear disarmament conferences. (By Hiroshi Fuse, Expert Senior Writer)

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