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Hibakusha: 'Youngest' A-bomb survivor works to preserve Hiroshima memories

Jiro Hamasumi speaks in front of a painting about "exposure to the A-bomb inside the mother's womb" in Tokyo, on Jan. 23, 2019. (Mainichi/Asako Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Jiro Hamasumi says he is "the youngest hibakusha," or atomic bombing survivor, as he was in his mother's womb on Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. Now 73, Hamasumi is leading a fundraising drive to establish a center to promote and preserve hibakushas' activities and memoirs.

"Hibakusha records are heritages for humanity," says Hamasumi, a resident of the western Tokyo city of Inagi. "Passing down the memories is something we must do." He began working in December last year to raise 600 million yen over three years to establish the "No More Hibakusha Keisho (heritage) Center" in the capital.

The unborn Hamasumi "experienced" the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing two days after the blast as his pregnant mother walked around the city center searching for his father, who had been working near ground zero. She could only find her husband's personal belongings. Hamasumi was born about six months later. He holds a government-issued A-bomb survivor certificate.

When Hamasumi turned 49 -- the age his father died -- he wrote to his older siblings to ask them to speak about their A-bomb experiences. Hamasumi came to know 16 years ago that there are other people like him -- those who survived the bombing as fetuses -- when he joined a peace movement through the establishment of a local hibakusha society.

One such prenatal radiation exposure victim wrote in a personal note, "I was stigmatized as a hibakusha even before I was born." Another used harsh words to describe their family members. Others took their own lives due to poor health. Each time Hamasumi learned about these people's lives, his belief grew that even those with indirect experience of the bombing have stories to tell.

Four years ago, Hamasumi was picked as assistant secretary of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo) because of his relative youth among hibakusha. Nihon Hidankyo, formed in 1956 by A-bomb survivors seeking "no more hibakusha," has demanded the abolition of nuclear weapons and compensation from the government. "I've learned the history of the hibakusha movement and felt the weight of its 63 years of history," said Hamasumi of his stint at the federation.

In 2011, a nonprofit organization was set up to pass down hibakushas' memories. For this project, some 10,000 documents and other items have been collected with the help of people including university students. Those young people -- including students who researched the lives of hibakusha or others playing the roles of A-bomb survivors in their video clips -- gave Hamasumi greater motivation to carry on with his mission of passing down the survivors' experiences. "Watching those young people deepening their understanding of hibakusha was a big boost for me," he said.

Hamasumi lectured about the experience of hibakusha to university students in New York when he visited the United Nations headquarters to submit signatures in support of the "Appeal of the Hibakusha" for the elimination of nuclear weapons. "I want you to understand what it means to become a hibakusha even before birth," he told the students as he stood by a picture painted by his Japanese artist friend and themed on radiation exposure in the womb. His story triggered serious reactions from the audience, including questions about their possible roles for the future.

Hamasumi is determined to pass on to younger people the horror of radiation that can continue over generations.

(Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

(This is part two of a series)

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