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Hibakusha: 72-yr-old exposed to A-bomb in womb finds hope in education, next generation

Yoko Nakano, 72, listens to reactions from elementary school students to whom she spoke about her experience when she was in elementary school as a child who had been exposed to the Nagasaki atomic bomb in the womb, in Fukutsu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

FUKUTSU, Fukuoka -- Six months before 30 sixth-graders from Kamisaigo Elementary School here were to set out for their school trip to the atomic bombed city of Nagasaki, they heard a peace studies lecture from 72-year-old Yoko Nakano.

"I experienced the atomic bomb inside my mother's belly," she told the students on Oct. 2, revealing her story to an audience for the first time. "I don't even know what it smelled like, but I am a hibakusha," or "atomic bomb survivor" in Japanese.

Nakano was born in Nagasaki six months after the bomb fell on the city. Her mother was at home roughly 3 kilometers from the hypocenter. During her six years at Nagasaki Municipal Shiroyama Elementary School, she belonged to the "atomic bombed class," where 20 children exposed to the bomb and 20 who had not were grouped together. Ever since the Mainichi Shimbun's "Hibakusha Series" began in 2006, she has responded to the reporters in charge, and has continued to tell of her memories of that class and her wish for the abolishment of nuclear weapons.

However, when it came to going to places like elementary schools to talk about her experiences, even at the suggestion of the reporters, she hesitated. Even though those who directly experienced the bomb keep calling for global denuclearization, the fight is ongoing. "What can someone like me who doesn't have the experiences they do accomplish by telling my story?" Nakano wondered. She simply did not have the confidence to speak.

This year, however, her feelings changed when she got her first request to speak at Kamisaigo Elementary from a teacher who had read a newspaper article about Nakano, who now lives in Fukutsu, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southwestern Japan. Feeling first-hand the advancing age of the hibakusha, she realized that she, who was exposed to the bomb in her mother's womb, was part of what is now the youngest generation of survivors. "I too have been involved with the A-bomb (issue) to no small extent," she said. "I will do what I can to the best of my abilities."

When Nakano was in elementary school, she did not even know that she was in the "atomic bombed class." Occasionally, her name would be called in class, and she would be guided to a fancy car. She would be taken to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), now the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, to have her body and blood tested. On the way back, she would get sweets, but Nakano's mother, who died at 77 in 2000, would get angry with her daughter when she got excited over the treats. When Nakano learned later that the tests were to compare her condition to that of her classmates who had not been irradiated, she understood her mother's behavior, and was filled with complicated feelings of regret and anger.

Weaving in clips from a documentary about the "atomic bombed class," in which she participated 15 years ago, Nakano told her story directly to the sixth-graders at Kamisaigo in her own words. Toward the end of her roughly one-hour lecture, Nakano said, "Even though we had done nothing wrong, many people died. Continuing to tell my story so that something like this never happens again is my mission."

"The damage from the bomb is not only to the body, but the spirit as well," "In order to keep living peacefully, 'learning' is important," she continued. When she returned to the school in November to read the reports written by the students about her lecture, her heart filled with joy.

"The things I wanted to convey are clearly written in their essays. I'm happy they took my words to heart," she said.

Nakano saw hope in the children who would take the lead on the road to a world free of nuclear weapons in the future.

(Japanese original by Emi Aoki, Kyushu News Department)

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