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As I See It: Digging up remains of 'hibakusha' shows war not yet over

Rebun Kayo carries out bone excavations of atomic bombing victims on Hiroshima's Ninoshima island in this photo taken on April 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- The city commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing on Aug. 6. For two years now, I have been at the Hiroshima Bureau for the second time, and have continued to report on the topic of the U.S. atomic bombing of the city.

This year, however, I encountered something that made me realize that the bombing is not yet a thing of the past. On a small island off the coast of Hiroshima Port, those who had perished as a result of the bombing had been found underground for the first time in 14 years.

I accompanied a graduate student carrying out the excavation of the remains at the site, touched the bones that had come out of the earth for the first time in 73 years, and felt with my own skin the reality that people's lives had been cut short.

Since last year, threats of nuclear attack have been bandied about by the leaders of both North Korea and the U.S. As soon as it appears that we've made a positive step forward, we encounter another setback, then, it's: wash, rinse, repeat. As a reporter in one of just two cities in the world where an atomic bomb has been dropped, I hope to continue reporting on what the outcome of using a nuclear weapon is.

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On April 23, on an island some 3 kilometers off the coast of Hiroshima Port called Ninoshima, the mountains surrounding us were a lush green, and the sound of waves was a salve for the soul. I was accompanying 40-year-old Rebun Kayo, a graduate student at Hiroshima University who was decked out in work clothes. He picked up a white shard with soil on it from the ground. "This is bone," he said quietly. It was part of a "hibakusha" -- an atomic bomb victim -- who had been left buried without catching anyone's attention for all these years.

Shortly after the nuclear bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, the Imperial Japanese Army's quarantine post on the eastern part of the island was turned into a field hospital. Some 10,000 injured were brought there within the next 20 days. Many of those people died, and were buried on the island. Remains were excavated after the war, but none had been found since a 2004 excavation conducted by the Hiroshima Municipal Government.

Kayo had heard, however, from the island's residents that there were victims still buried underground. After spending four years gathering funds, he began his own excavations. He found 100 pieces of bone, and according to analyses by the Hiroshima Prefectural Police and other experts, learned that the pieces of bone belonged to atomic bomb victims, and that there was a possibility that some belonged to women and children.

I accompanied Kayo on a 5-day survey, and searched for bones with him. I found a small bone fragment in the earth. It looked like it would crumble from the slightest pressure, so I held it gingerly with my fingertips, and cautiously dusted the soil that was stuck to it. I couldn't stand to think how much the person whose bone I had just found would have wanted to return to their family.

My first encounter with Kayo went back two years. Three of Kayo's relatives died in the Battle of Okinawa in the final months of the Pacific War, and their remains have yet to be found. He said that when he visited Hiroshima on a graduation trip organized by his junior high school, stories he had been told by hibakusha about people's bones and belongings that still remained in rivers in the city had left a strong impression on him. "Whether a bereaved family has the deceased's remains or not changes how much sorrow that family feels," he said, and reiterated his commitment to excavating the remains of hibakusha. "We must not let the war become a thing of the past. My duty is to find as many people as I can."

I was struck by the willingness with which Kayo, who is close to me in age, had to squarely face what happened 73 years ago, and the tenacity with which he took on his mission. Bones are evidence that someone had lived. There are many whose lives were suddenly taken from them on Aug. 6, 1945, and whose remains have never been found. They left their homes to go to school or work and their families and friends don't even have a clue about where they perished. I have reported on people who have struggled to accept the loss of people whose deaths have been impossible to confirm. Having now seen people's long-lost remains, I can better understand that sentiment.

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After he'd overcome cancer twice and was in his 70s, Minoru Ozaki, now 86, began to draw pictures of his hometown at the time of the atomic bombing. "It must've been fate that I survived," he told himself. At the time of the bombing, Ozaki lived in then Nakajima Shinmachi, just south of where Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park now is, in the city's Chuo Ward. Nakajima Shinmachi used to be the center of the city, where shops and homes lined the streets, and the prefectural government building stood nearby. Ozaki played in back alleys and gardens with his friends every day.

On Aug. 6, 1945, 13-year-old Ozaki was exposed to the atomic bomb on his way to school. Having suffered injuries to his face and other parts of his body, he was taken to a first-aid station in the town of Saka in the suburbs of Hiroshima, where he stayed until the war ended nine days later. His family had moved to a nearby town a week earlier that had been close to the hypocenter of the bomb, and he had no idea where his grandmother, mother and younger sister were. When he returned to where his family had lived, there was no trace of a home. The city that he had been born and raised in had been obliterated. He recalls standing there in a daze, slowly reaching the understanding that his three family members had died. Their remains were never found.

Two years ago, wanting to leave behind a record of his "hometown" while his memory of it was still fresh in his mind, Ozaki made a map that restored Nakajima Shinmachi and its environs to the way they were in 1944. His desire to show others that there had indeed been a city and lives lived within it before the atomic bomb was dropped served as motivation for the project.

Of late, Ozaki has begun drawing portraits of family members, photos of whom have been burned and destroyed by the atomic bombing. He sometimes works through the night, as if possessed. Before, he used to seem resigned about the bombing, saying, "It was war, there wasn't much that could've been done." But after interviewing him several times, Ozaki began to express anger. "Now, I get a flash of anger, of bitterness toward the atomic bomb." I suddenly realized that through his art, Ozaki was protesting quietly against the atomic bomb and war, which had ripped his everyday life from him.

Around the world -- but primarily in the U.S. and Russia -- there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons, and efforts to pave the way toward a world without nuclear weapons are still ongoing. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted last year, but ratification has been slow, which has prevented it from going into effect. What are we to make of this reality? One hibakusha who continues to pass down stories of the atomic bombing to younger generations lamented, "The world still doesn't understand the horrors of nuclear weapons."

I will continue to ponder how to prevent the atomic bombing of Hiroshima from becoming a thing of the past, to dig up evidence that has been buried, and to link them to problems that we face in society today in order to decrease the number of nuclear weapons on this planet, even if it's just one at a time. (Japanese original by Shun Teraoka, Hiroshima Bureau)

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