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Hibakusha: A-bomb survivor dismayed by new victims of N. Korea nuclear tests

North and South Korean A-bomb survivor advocate Keisaburo Toyonaga is seen on Jan. 12, 2018, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. Toyonaga was exposed to residual radiation in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- In the waiting room of a dentist office here on Jan. 9, long-time advocate for Korean A-bomb survivors, Keisaburo Toyonaga, 81, who himself was exposed to residual radiation in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, had a heavy heart when he caught sight of the front page of the Mainichi Shimbun.

"There are new nuclear bomb victims after all," he says, upon seeing the news of two North Korean defectors that fled the country after two underground nuclear tests near their home. They were found to have abnormalities in their chromosomes similar to those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing victims, or "hibakusha." Toyonaga has long worried about hibakusha in North Korea, about whom very little is known.

"Look at this," said Toyonaga as he pulled out a publication by the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, of which he headed the Hiroshima branch until May 2016. In it, there is a letter sent to the Japanese government and other organizations via email in September 2016 by Pak Mun Suk, one of the few North Koreans who acquired a health booklet that officially recognized her as a victim of the 1945 atomic bombings.

"The hibakusha in our country are receiving proper treatment for free from every level of medical institution under our excellent socialist medical system," Pak wrote, but she also requested the "provision of medicine and medical equipment required for treating radiation related diseases."

To Toyonaga, the letter oozes of the distress of North Korean hibakusha who cannot get the support they need from their country that continues to deepen its isolation with its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs. "Now more than ever, aren't private efforts needed, like Hiroshima doctors moving to help them?" he laments.

Still, Toyonaga received good news from South Korea last summer. In Hapcheon County, where roughly 600 of South Korea's some 2,500 hibakusha live, the world's third public peace memorial museum detailing the horrors of the bomb opened to join the facilities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are not many exhibits, but as South Korea's hibakusha are also aging, the museum is considered important in order to pass along the experiences of the bomb to the next generation.

"I hope the Japanese and Korean museums can cooperate dynamically and it can become a place used to teach peace," says Toyonaga.

Toyonaga himself has been participating in the "Genbaku no e" (Drawings of the A-bombing) project since last summer, where A-bomb survivors tell their stories to students at Hiroshima Municipal Motomachi Senior High School, who then illustrate the experiences. Toyonaga was 9 years old when he entered Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing, and participated because he saw hope in the idea to have the hibakusha and young people create a work of art together. So far, he has met with two female students, and told them about witnessing people walking with the skin on their arms sagging off as well as other scenes. He said he felt strength bubbling up inside of him by seeing the earnest look in the girls' eyes.

While his legs have become weak, Toyonaga intends to continue to put all his efforts into telling his story in order to pass what he calls the "baton of peace" onto the next generation: "If it's to tell young people about the tragedy of the bomb, then there isn't anywhere I won't go."

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