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Hibakusha: Hiroshima man fights for free health care for 'black rain' victims

Seiji Takato is seen speaking at a press conference after a court adjournment in October, at the Hiroshima Bar Association hall in Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture. (Mainichi/Misa Koyama)

HIROSHIMA -- "A life full of diseases is one full of financial concerns. Many people have died. I stand here as a voice for all the people affected by 'black rain,'" said Seiji Takato, 78, his words starting slow and gaining power as he took the witness stand in court room 304 at the Hiroshima District Court on Oct. 30.

"Black Rain" refers to the radioactive fallout that descended on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the period immediately after the U.S. military's atomic bombs exploded over the cities in August 1945.

People who were in certain areas in the cities when the bombs fell are officially designated as "hibakusha" by the national government, making them eligible for free health care. In addition, people outside those prescribed locations who were in places classed as special exceptions, which were subjected to relatively high levels of black rain, are entitled to free medical checkups.

People who are found to have developed any of 11 different conditions deemed to have been possibly influenced by radiation are then eligible for hibakusha designation, and free health care.

But the rains fell even outside of the exceptional areas, and a group of people who maintain they now suffer the effects of radiation in those locations launched a suit at the Hiroshima District Court four years ago in an attempt to gain recognition for free health care and other benefits.

Takato was 4 years old when the bomb tore Hiroshima apart on Aug. 6, 1945. When the blast struck, he was at home in the village of Kanon, now part of the city of Hiroshima's Saeki Ward, and some 9 kilometers west of the blast's hypocenter.

He described hearing the echo of a huge, booming sound. Then the sliding doors in his home collapsed, and he ran out crying to the edge of the house. The sky in the east was a mix of red, yellow and green like a lightshow; Takato says he remembers vividly how it looked to this day.

He says he doesn't remember being exposed to the black rain, but he did see ash and debris come falling from the sky. He drank water from a river that was likely to be carrying the radiation that had fallen, and he ate vegetables grown in front of the house. As a child, his body was weak, and his lymph nodes would often swell up. Eventually his condition improved, and he worked as a high school teacher for over 30 years.

Takato was occasionally consulted by plaintiffs whose medical bills were rising and pushing them into poverty. He joined the suit as a complainant. But in the initial period after getting on board, he said he often questioned himself over whether someone like him, who had managed to get their health back, was really qualified for the hibakusha designation.

In spring this year, he underwent a health check in correspondence with demands from the court to do so. He was found to have hypertensive heart disease and to have had a stroke. Both conditions fall under the 11 outlined by the government that make a person in the specified areas eligible for free health care as a hibakusha.

"Does that mean I had internal exposure to radiation?" he said to the doctor without a thought. It was then that he felt he had truly entered the ring with his co-complainants.

The suit at one time had 88 complainants, but 11 of them have since passed away. The remaining plaintiffs all suffer from one of the 11 conditions outlined by the government, and many have had to step away from the witness stand in the midst of providing testimony due to their poor health.

"Because they often get sick, these people can't work, so there are many who couldn't pay the fees for the suit to join it. This fight isn't just about the plaintiffs," he said. A decision on whether these people will be recognized as hibakusha is expected in the spring of 2020.

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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