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Hiroshima sisters celebrate 'black rain' trial victory as they carry on parents' legacy

Chika Maeda, center, is seen shaking hands with her elder sister, while her youngest sister Chizora Nishimura stands to the left, following the Hiroshima District Court's ruling over damage from the "black rain" after the 1945 atomic bombing, on July 29, 2020, in the city's Naka Ward. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)
This portrait provided by Chika Maeda shows her late parents, Heizo Hanamoto, right, and Masako Hanamoto.

HIROSHIMA -- Three sisters in this western Japan city are celebrating the news that two of them have finally been officially recognized as survivors of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

    The change came after the Hiroshima District Court on July 29 ruled in favor of all 84 plaintiffs in a lawsuit which demanded that state health care benefits for people affected by the radioactive "black rain" that fell after the bombing be extended to those who were outside of the government-recognized zones where eligible people were situated at the time.

    "All the plaintiffs were recognized as A-bomb survivors," Chika Maeda, 78, told her elder and younger sisters who were waiting in front of the district court after she rushed out to them following the landmark ruling. Maeda, who is one of the plaintiffs, was in the courtroom as the verdict ordering the Hiroshima prefectural and municipal governments to issue A-bomb survivors' certificates to all plaintiffs was handed down. "Our voices have been heard at long last," Maeda said with tears welling in her eyes.

    The three sisters -- Maeda, her 82-year-old sister, and her 76-year-old sister Chizora Nishimura -- were all in the same Hiroshima village when they were exposed to the radioactive black rain in the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing. However, they had long been treated differently regarding the government's recognition of eligibility for health care benefits because of a slight difference in where they were during the radioactive rainfall.

    On that morning 75 years ago, Maeda, then 3 years old, and her sisters were in the village of Minochi, currently part of Hiroshima's Saeki Ward, about 20 kilometers away from the hypocenter of the blast. Maeda went out to a rice paddy near her home with her mother, Masako Hanamoto, then aged 30, and was playing there with her younger sister Chizora, then aged 1. All of a sudden, Maeda's hat was blown away by a tremendous gust. It began to rain, and soon all three went home and changed out of their wet clothes. Maeda's elder sister, then aged 7, was taking part in a local community activity for children at the time, which was happening across a nearby river.

    Ten years later, Maeda's mother developed a tumor in her arm. After turning 50, she was in and out of hospital due to heart disease. Maeda's father, Heizo Hanamoto, came to suspect that his wife's exposure to the black rain in 1945 had affected her health. Heizo had returned after the end of the war from Manchuria, now part of China's northeast, and taught at an elementary school.

    In 1976, just as Maeda's mother was struggling with illnesses, the national government designated an area where heavy rain reportedly fell after the atomic bombing as a zone eligible for relief measures. The heavy rainfall was reported in a survey that was conducted during the turbulent period soon after the end of the war.

    The village of Minochi was only partially included in the relief measures zone, after being divided into two areas along the river. This made those who were in an area where Maeda's elder sister was staying that morning eligible for the relief measures, but the home and the rice paddy where she, her mother and younger sister had been were outside the designated zone.

    "There can't be a difference in the intensity of rainfall in the same village," her father said. In 1978, he formed a group with other residents in areas that were excluded from the government relief measures zone and became its first chairman.

    After his wife passed away three years later aged 66, he visited residents who were exposed to the black rain while carrying a picture of his wife in his chest pocket. He managed to collect 20,000 signatures calling for an expansion of the public assistance zone, and petitioned the national government time and again. He spearheaded the movement until he retired as chairman in the mid-1990s. The group eventually became the present-day Hiroshima Prefecture liaison council of black rain victims' groups.

    After he passed away in 2007, Maeda and her younger sister Nishimura suffered from thyroid gland tumors and cataracts -- which are among the illnesses the government recognizes as related to the effects from atomic bombing radiation.

    With their mother's suffering from diseases and their father's passion for the movement in mind, Maeda and Nishimura joined the group of plaintiffs in the black rain lawsuit in November 2015, which initially started out with 64 people. As they prepared for the lawsuit, their elder sister revealed to them that she had received an A-bomb survivor's certificate in 1999. "It was good that at least one of us could receive it," Maeda remembered thinking.

    Their elder sister's testimony helped to support the memories of the two younger sisters, who were very young at the time of the bombing. With a shared belief that the problem was the division of areas between eligible and ineligible zones and that they wanted to see that inequality eliminated, the three sisters went to the court to sit in on the trial's hearings.

    On July 29 this year, Maeda listened intently to the voice of Presiding Judge Yoshiyuki Takashima as he read out the ruling for a good 20 minutes.

    "The plaintiffs can be recognized as individuals who were under circumstances in which they were affected by radiation," the presiding judge said at the close of the verdict. When Maeda heard that sentence, she realized that all the plaintiffs had been recognized as A-bomb survivors eligible for relief measures.

    "Precisely because of our parents' thoughts and passions, it's been possible for us to be engaged in this movement until now. Our mother and father should be glad," Maeda said.

    On Aug. 6 this year, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing, the three sisters plan to report before their parents' portraits that all of them were finally recognized as hibakusha, or A-bomb survivors.

    Following the July 29 ruling, about 100 people including plaintiffs and their supporters shared their joy over the verdict at a meeting held in a bar association's hall near the Hiroshima District Court.

    "I'd like to thank the bold decision of the district court," head of the plaintiffs' group Masaaki Takano, 82, from Hiroshima's Saeki Ward, said with a raised voice and tears in his eyes. He took over the chairmanship of the Hiroshima Prefecture liaison council of black rain victims' groups in the mid-1990s, and has since spearheaded the movement.

    Seiji Takato, 79, deputy director-general of the liaison council, commented, "I'm relieved the damage from the black rain has been recognized." Takato, who is also a resident of Saeki Ward, was just 4 years old when the black rain fell on him when he was in the village of Kannon (present-day Saeki Ward), about 9 kilometers west of the hypocenter. But he also showed frustration over the lawsuit taking many years, saying angrily, "Many people suffered and died in this time."

    Masayuki Matsumoto, who was deputy head of the plaintiffs' group, died in March aged 94. When the black rain trial was concluded in January, he arranged buses for plaintiffs to go to the district court. Kazuo Hirofuji, 80, who headed a group of 16 plaintiffs in a bus tour from the Hiroshima Prefecture town of Akiota, commented, "We could fight in the lawsuit because we had Mr. Matsumoto. I'd like to tell him that we won."

    In the ruling, the Hiroshima court referred to a paper about the black rain area that was published in 1989 by Yoshinobu Masuda, 95, a former official at the Meteorological Research Institute. In the paper, Masuda, now a resident of the Tokyo suburban city of Komae, concluded that testimony of over 2,000 people indicated that the black rain fell in a broader area that went beyond the government-designated relief measures zone.

    The district court judged that the paper serves as "one of the compelling resources in estimating" the actual black rain area. In speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, Masuda said, "I hope my paper will lead to relief measures for those who experienced the black rain."

    (Japanese original by Misa Koyama and Akari Terouchi and Kazuki Ikeda, Hiroshima Bureau, and Hitoshi Sonobe, Osaka Regional News Department)

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