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Hibakusha: Nagasaki activist, 79, looks to entrust nuclear movement to next generation

Koichi Kawano is seen speaking at the May 9, 2019 hibakusha meeting in Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park, Nagasaki, Nagasaki Prefecture. (Mainichi/Yuki Imano)

NAGASAKI -- On May 9, there was a sit-in hibakusha gathering in front of the Peace Statue at Nagasaki Peace Park. The meeting takes place on the ninth of every month, marking the Aug. 9, 1945, U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki. This month's congregation marked the 444th time for such an event.

Koichi Kawano, 79, took to the microphone to speak about the stand-off between the United States and Iran. "This is a crisis," he said to the around 100 people in attendance, continuing, "Our hearts are one when wishing for the abolition of nuclear weapons."

Born in North Pyongan Province on the Korean Peninsula, now part of North Korea, Kawano was brought back to his parents' hometown Nagasaki as a child. Aged 5 in August 1945, he was around 3.1 kilometers away from the atomic bomb's hypocenter. Now a resident of the nearby town of Nagayo, he has been an activist for the end of nuclear weaponry in roles including his long tenure as chairman of the Hibakusha Liaison Council of the Nagasaki Prefectural Peace Movement Center.

"While enduring untold misery, we have won our rights with our own strength," he says, looking back on the messages their hibakusha meetings have sent against the government's constitutional amendment policies and security legislation designed to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited manner.

"Perseverance is power" has been Kawano's guiding motto in engaging in the movement's activities, but this spring he faced a difficult reality. Masanori Nakashima, president of the Nagasaki Prefecture A-bomb Health Handbook Friendship Society, died aged 89 on March 15. The two men were allies in peace activism. Representatives of five local hibakusha groups, including Nakashima and Kawano, announced a joint statement on peace issues and handed a written request to the prime minister on Aug. 9.

Of the five hibakusha group representatives who were alive in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the bombing, three including Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council chair Sumiteru Taniguchi have passed away. Taniguchi died in 2017 at 88 years of age. "Even with his limp, he dragged himself to that office to hear other hibakusha speak," Kawano reminisced, while looking ahead to an uncertain future, saying, "What will happen to these groups after we die?"

Kawano himself underwent surgery for esophageal cancer in 2017. Due to ill health he was forced to pull out of a survey of hibakusha in North Korea as a member of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs in fall 2018. Despite setbacks, his drive for peace remains unchanged. Kawano confronted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the Japanese government's disinclination to sign and ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in a face-to-face meeting in 2017, asking, "What country's prime minister are you?"

As time marches on from the events of August 1945, Kawano is putting his faith in the next generation. "The increasingly quiet voices of the hibakusha must not be drowned out," he says. At the monthly sit-ins in Nagasaki Peace Park, the number of high school age attendees has increased. As he welcomes the last summer of his 70s, Kawano's resolve remains strong. "Peace activism is powered by people. I want the movement to continue, to carry on the wish never to see another generation of hibakusha in this world."

(Japanese original by Yuki Imano, Nagasaki Bureau)

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