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Hibakusha: Diplomatic clashes may erupt, but pain of war knows no borders

Keisaburo Toyonaga speaks with compassion toward Korean ex-forced laborers who were exposed to the atomic bomb, in front of a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. factory in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward on Feb. 8, 2019. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

HIROSHIMA -- At a gathering held in this western Japanese city in December last year, Keisaburo Toyonaga called on the 100-plus people in attendance, "I hope that you will learn the reality of the forced (South Korean) laborers' situation, and consider how they feel when thinking about this issue."

The 82-year-old Toyonaga serves as a facilitator for the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korea Bomb Victims. A hibakusha himself, he was 9 years old when the U.S. Air Force dropped the uranium "Little Boy" bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Toyonaga was exposed to radiation when he entered the city center in search of his mother and younger brother. Later in life, he was a high school teacher.

A ruling handed down last fall by the South Korean Supreme Court ordering Japanese corporations to pay compensation to former forced laborers developed into a diplomatic controversy. This prompted the plaintiffs' attorneys, among others, to organize the aforementioned gathering to explain the events that led up to the suit and the ruling, as well as the plaintiffs' hopes and thoughts.

"It isn't like this issue emerged out of nowhere," Toyonaga says. The number of people from the Korean Peninsula -- formerly a Japanese colony -- who were exposed to the atomic bomb is said to number in the several tens of thousands, but the actual number remains unknown. Toyonaga began taking action to support such hibakusha from the Korean Peninsula in the 1970s. That's when he learned of the existence of hibakusha in South Korea who could not receive the medical benefits granted to Japanese certified survivors such as himself.

"Hibakusha are hibakusha, no matter where they are," he says. He couldn't just sit there and do nothing. Among the people who had been exposed to the bomb and were unable to receive hibakusha benefits was the late Lee Geun-mok. He was one of the plaintiffs in the case in which the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese corporations to pay compensation. Lee, however, passed away in 2011 at the age of 87, and his family took his place as plaintiff.

Lee was brought from the Korean Peninsula in 1944 and forced to work in metal processing and other jobs for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Hiroshima. Barbed wire was installed around the dormitory, and his room was the size of a single tatami mat (about 1.65 square meters). He worked at least 10 hours a day, day after day. Lee was exposed to the bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 at the Mitsubishi factory some 4 kilometers from the bomb's hypocenter, and returned to the peninsula on his own as a stowaway on a ship. He was essentially a disposable laborer, and Mitsubishi had reneged on its promise to pay half his wages to his family.

"It's unfair for what happened (to Lee) to be forgotten," Toyonaga says. "I can't imagine how embittered he must have felt."

Lee and others filed a suit with the Hiroshima District Court in 1995 seeking damages from the Japanese government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. In 2007, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that not applying the Atomic Bomb Survivors' Assistance Act to the South Korean Plaintiffs was illegal, and recognized for the first time the Japanese government's liability for compensation. However, the top court rejected the responsibility of the Japanese government and corporations to pay compensation for forced wartime labor, saying that the statute of limitations had expired on the right to seek reparations. A similar lawsuit was filed in South Korea in 2000.

Toyonaga says he cannot forget the sight of Lee visiting the Mitsubishi Heavy headquarters and saying, "I'm so happy to meet my junior colleagues," as he smiled at the young employees there.

"(The plaintiffs) did not file the lawsuit out of anti-Japanese sentiment," Toyonaga states. "Their motivation was a desire to have the past recognized." Pointing out a case in which a Japanese corporation voluntarily paid compensation to Chinese nationals it had forcibly brought over to Japan, Toyonaga adds, "Ways to resolve the situation existed. The current situation exists because (the government and corporations) neglected to do anything about it."

"I'm concerned that exchanges between citizens may cease if the conflict between the Japanese and South Korean governments incites nationalist sentiment," Toyonaga says. It is always the people who are hurt by war, and such pain sees no national boundaries. Toyonaga is intent on continuing to share the story of Lee and the others who were abandoned by the Japanese government and companies.

(Japanese original by Shun Teraoka, Hiroshima Bureau)

(This is part five of a series)

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