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Hibakusha: In the heart of an A-bomb survivor, a mother's thoughts linger

An emotional Hiroshi Kanemoto speaks about his deceased mother and sister in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima on Aug. 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- Hiroshi Kanemoto, who took part in this year's peace memorial ceremony as a representative of bereaved family members of A-bomb victims in Aichi Prefecture for the first time, never thought of himself as a hibakusha, or A-bomb survivor.

This was in spite of the fact that he was exposed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, when he was just 9 months old.

In the past, he had regarded the yearly peace memorial ceremony merely as an event for politicians and citizens groups to state their own positions. But his feelings were changed by his mother Tsuneko, who died in 2013 at the age of 95 without ever having talked about her experiences as a hibakusha.

"I wonder how she felt, remaining silent. I want to come to terms with the atomic bombing from which my mother suffered," Kanemoto says.

Kanemoto, 74, had been vaguely aware of the fact that he had been exposed to radiation from the atomic bombing of the western Japan city of Hiroshima as an infant. But he has no recollection of the experience and he hadn't thought much about the atomic bombing. After he graduated from university and found a job in the central Japan city of Nagoya, the opportunities for him to think about the bombing decreased further.

When his mother was alive, she never talked about her experiences in the atomic bombing. Even after he got married and took his two children to Hiroshima for a visit, the issue of the atomic bombing didn't come up.

After Kanemoto retired, however, he learned through a health check that he had a low number of white blood cells. A doctor, shocked at the result, told him, "It's amazing that you've survived this long," and he started to think of the atomic bombing. Several years later, his mother passed away.

"I should have asked her more about what happened at the time," he thought with regret. He then asked his now 89-year-old sister about that day of fate.

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Kanemoto was being carried on the back of his sister at Koi Station (currently JR Nishi-Hiroshima Station), about 2.5 kilometers west of the hypocenter. The bomb exploded the moment they came out of the station. Kanemoto was left lying on the ground, bleeding, and wasn't moving. A male stranger came to his assistance, extracting rubble from his mouth. After his cheeks were slapped to help him come round, Kanemoto started crying loudly.

At the time, Kanemoto's mother was at her home in Hiroshima, about 5 kilometers southeast of the bomb's hypocenter. Doors and windows were blown away by the blast, but she apparently escaped injury. But why did she never talk about her experiences on that day?

Kanemoto has one possible explanation. He tended to easily fall ill when he was young, and another one of his sisters was left with keloids from radiation burns. "My mother may have thought that my sister and I were being discriminated against on the grounds that we were exposed to radiation from the bombing, so she may have avoided talking about the atomic bombing so as not to hurt us," Kanemoto conjectures.

From that point on, Kanemoto started to take part in activities calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons as an A-bomb survivor. He joined a group of hibakusha and single-handedly collected over 2,000 signatures in the International Signature Campaign in Support of the Appeal of the Hibakusha for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, calling for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to be brought into force at an early date.

Kanemoto's elder sister who was left with keloids died in June this year, after a long period of suffering from illness brought by the atomic bombing. At the ceremony on Aug. 6, her name was added to the cenotaph for A-bomb victims. In his heart, he vowed to his mother, "Without a doubt, I've come to realize that both my mother and I are hibakusha, and precisely because of that, we have to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons."

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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