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Hibakusha: Dialogue as a 'weapon' to achieve a world without nukes

Masao Tomonaga visits the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki to hear a message from Pope Francis on Nov. 24, 2019. (Mainichi/Minoru Kanazawa)

NAGASAKI -- On the morning of Nov. 24, Masao Tomonaga, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, looked on in the cold rain as Pope Francis placed flowers in front of a cenotaph at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in the southwestern Japan city. For about a minute and a half, the pope's eyes remained closed.

"I've been present when various heads of state and VIPs have placed flowers in the past, but none of them have put this much thought into it," Tomonaga said, his heart full of enthusiasm as he looked at the pontiff.

On Oct. 21, a little over a month before the pope arrived in Japan, a final report of the Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament was submitted to State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kenji Wakamiya. Tomonaga is a member of this group, which promotes dialogue between states with and without nuclear weapons. Over the two years since its establishment in 2017, a total of 17 members of this international group have engaged in discussion, but it has not been without complications.

Tomonaga has repeatedly talked about the aftereffects of exposure to radiation and the impact that nuclear weapons have had on the lives of hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings. At the same time, nuclear powers have stressed the need for nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, the group reached no conclusions on how to build a concrete path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. The final report went no further than supporting more dialogue between each of the participating countries, and strengthening the vision for a world without nuclear weapons.

But Tomonaga hasn't given up hope. When speaking in Nagasaki, the pope called for the involvement of various spheres, including individuals, civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, to make the ideal of a world without nuclear weapons a reality. He also listed "insistence on dialogue" among what he said he hoped to serve as "the most powerful 'weapons.'"

"There was a connection at the fundamental level between the pope's message and the conclusions that our long discussions produced," Tomonaga said, feeling empowered by the pontiff's words.

In July this year, an A-bomb survivor who had continued to call for a world without nuclear weapons passed away. Toyokazu Ihara, who had served as chairman of the Nagasaki Prefecture Hibakusha Health Handbook Holders' Association, one of five groups in Nagasaki representing hibakusha, died at 83. He had previously confided to Tomonaga, "A person who could start an international hibakusha movement would be good as my successor." Taking Ihara's will upon himself, Tomonaga assumed the role of chairman in August.

In August, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia expired, against the wishes of hibakusha. Ahead of the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the divide between states with and without nuclear weapons has been deepening. Tomonaga, however, stresses, "Humanity still doesn't possess deterrence to replace nuclear weapons, but 'dialogue' will probably change that."

Strengthened by the pope's conviction that a world without nuclear weapons is possible, Tomonaga intends to continue to call for the elimination of these weapons.

(Japanese original by Shotaro Asano, Nagasaki Bureau)

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