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Hibakusha: 'Zainichi' Korean reveals true identity to come to terms with Hiroshima A-bomb

Lee Jong-geun stands in front of a memorial for Korean victims of the atomic bomb that was dropped by the U.S. military on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- There is a second-generation Korean resident of Japan, or "Zainichi" Korean, who began talking about his experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima under his real name -- but only once he was in his 80s. The now 90-year-old man's true name is Lee Jong-geun.

He had lived most of his life hiding his Korean heritage. But seven years ago, when he decided to start talking about his experience of the bombing, he simultaneously resolved to stop living by his Japanese name. "I can't speak about my real experience unless I do it as a Korean," he says.

His parents came to Japan looking for a better life than the one they lived in poverty on the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule at the time. They went by Japanese names even before Japanese government ordinances were passed to force Koreans to adopt them. Lee, who was born in Japan, went by Masaichi Egawa outside the home.

When people found out Lee was of Korean descent, he was bullied. Once when he was in elementary school, a man he did not know urinated on him. And yet, when World War II began, news reports that the Imperial Japanese Army was delivering devastating blows to U.S. forces made his heart sing. Lee wanted so much to become Japanese that he defied orders from his father to speak Korean at home.

At age 14, Lee started working at the Hiroshima Railway Bureau as an apprentice. At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, when he was 16 years old, he was exposed to the "Little Boy" atomic bomb during his commute, approximately 1.8 kilometers east of the hypocenter. "Everything in front of me turned orange," he recalls. He saw waves of yellow light for about two to three seconds, and instantly got down on the ground, but suffered burns to his cheeks, neck and hands.

When he got to work, machine oil was rubbed onto his burns as an emergency measure. He walked 16 kilometers back to his home, where his mother, upon her return at night, grabbed him and cried inconsolably. Lee had not wanted his colleagues to know that he had Korean roots, so he had not told his parents where he was working. Because of this, his parents had been looking all over the devastated city for him.

After the war ended, Lee continued to hide his background. He was told by a superior at work that he needed to submit a "koseki" family register to become a permanent employee, so he quit the railway bureau. He could not find work at companies run by Japanese, so he worked at Zainichi Korean-owned businesses, including a trucking firm, or sold rice wine on the black market to support his family.

His longing to become Japanese did not change. He had been born and educated in Japan. Out of consideration for his parents' feelings, though, he did not obtain Japanese citizenship, but he did not reveal his real name or his experience of the Hiroshima bombing, and lived life as a "regular" Japanese person.

It was in 2012, some 20 years after he had retired, that opportunity for transformation struck. He learned through a newspaper that the Tokyo-based NGO Peace Boat was planning a round-the-world trip of "hibakusha" -- or people who had been exposed to the atomic bombing -- for them to tell their stories. He was drawn by the words "round-the-world" and decided to take part.

In order to board the ship having revealed that he was a Zainichi Korean survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he had to confront and reconcile, for the first time in his life, with his past. It suddenly dawned on him. If Japan had not colonized the Korean Peninsula, he would not have been born in Japan, and he would not have experienced the atomic bombing. He had to talk about that day not as Masaichi Egawa, but as Lee Jong-geun.

When giving testimony of his experiences, Lee does not just speak about Japan as a victim of the atomic bombings, but makes it a point to speak about Japan as a perpetrator of wrongdoing in the war. "It is because I am Lee Jong-geun, not Masaichi Egawa, that I can truly communicate my yearning for a world without war or discrimination," he says with conviction.

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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