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Hibakusha: Former navy sailor now fights for int'l nuke ban treaty

Zenjiro Sakaguchi tells of his experiences after the A-bombing of Hiroshima in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, on Jan. 16, 2018. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- Gripping his cane with a shaky right hand, Zenjiro Sakaguchi rose from his seat and gave a tight-lipped bow in greeting at a gathering here in December 2017 to collect signatures for nuclear weapons abolition.

The event was the inaugural assembly of the "Hibakusha Appeal" (A-bomb survivor's appeal) Osaka chapter, a group working to promote a larger international signature campaign calling for countries to join in the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Even as Sakaguchi, who is a representative facilitator for the chapter, received applause from the participants who filled the venue to capacity, his expression did not change.

"I've been thinking," the 96-year-old said. "This will be my final job."

Sakaguchi is a warrior for the causes he believes in. After World War II, he threw himself into working with the labor union of a private railway company in the Kansai region. He served a total of six terms as a Suita Municipal Assembly and Osaka Prefectural Assembly lawmaker before becoming the representative director of the Nihon Hidankyo, or Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, from fiscal 1985 to 2000, and again from fiscal 2005 to 2007. In that time, he faced off with the central government to get more aid for survivors.

"If you entrust it all to the people in charge (of the government), then we'll just have another war break out," Sakaguchi said, revealing the drive behind the efforts to which he has devoted his life.

On Aug. 6, 1945, four months had passed since the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Sakaguchi was on board had been sent to the bottom, and he had witnessed the battleship Yamato sink while he was afloat on the waves of the East China Sea. The 23-year-old communications officer was later assigned to a naval base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, to prepare to meet a potential U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands. He was just 20 kilometers south of central Hiroshima, and the bomb.

The fateful morning of Aug. 6, 1945, he saw a yellowish flash as he was inspecting communications equipment in a tent. Rushing outside, he could see an ominous cloud rise suddenly into the sky.

The following day, he entered the bombed area to help get Hiroshima Station back into service. Under the rubble lay countless bodies with charred skin and swollen faces. The men covered the air raid shelters in oil and set them aflame. As the black smoke rose into the sky, Sakaguchi muttered to himself, "The war must be brought to an end right away."

While setting up a communications post the next day, the unit was ordered to return to base. The second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war came to an end on Aug. 15, 1945.

Sakaguchi left the military, but became a warrior. When he heard the voices of his railway company co-workers dealing with a steep rise in prices, he went to the firm and requested higher pay. In an unsuccessful general strike, he lay down on the tracks and prevented the first train from leaving.

He also raised the anti-war flag. After the March 1954 Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) incident, where Japanese fishermen were irradiated by a U.S. thermonuclear bomb test on the Bikini Atoll, came to light, Sakaguchi stood outside Osaka Station to collect signatures opposing the nuclear tests. His distrust of those in power that had waged war was the driving force behind his activism.

The U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted in July 2017. However, nuclear powers and countries under the U.S.'s "nuclear umbrella" like Japan announced that they would not be signing it.

"If that's the way it is, then we will use our own power to make them join," said Sakaguchi. Unable to walk without his cane, it seems unlikely that Sakaguchi will take to the streets this time. Still, he is calling for signatures through acquaintances, and he distributes signature forms at every meeting venue he is invited to. Even in this final task, Sakaguchi's fighting spirit shows no signs of cooling down:

"We will get rid of nuclear weapons with our own signatures."

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