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Plaintiffs angered by gov't appeal in Hiroshima 'black rain' suit

Head of the plaintiffs' group, Masaaki Takano, right, and attorney Masayasu Takemori hold a press conference after the Hiroshima Municipal Government and the Hiroshima Prefectural Government appealed the Hiroshima District Court's A-bomb health care aid ruling, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Takao Kitamura)

HIROSHIMA -- Two weeks after a groundbreaking ruling in Japan to award government health care benefits to people exposed to radioactive "black rain" outside of the currently designated zone, the central government appealed, prompting aging plaintiffs to accuse the government of "buying time" and "waiting for them to die."

    In the lawsuit, the Hiroshima District Court recognized that all 84 plaintiffs in their 70s to their 90s had been exposed to radioactive black rain that fell after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima by the United States military, outside a zone currently recognized by the government. On Aug. 12, however, the government persuaded the Hiroshima Municipal Government and the Hiroshima Prefectural Government and went ahead with its appeal.

    While the central government has said it will review the current zone with an eye to expanding it, nobody knows when and who will be given benefits. The plaintiffs, whose average age is over 82, had hoped that a resolution would be reached in this milestone year -- 75 years since the bombing -- and are angered and disappointed.

    At 2 p.m. on the day the state appealed the ruling, the plaintiffs and their attorneys held a press conference at the Hiroshima Bar Association building in the city's Naka Ward. Masaaki Takano, 82, head of the plaintiffs' group, was about 20 kilometers northwest of the hypocenter in what is now Hiroshima's Saeki Ward when he was exposed to black rain as a 7 year old. He leaned forward and said forcefully, "There is a limit to life. If a decision is put off, there will be that many deaths." He added, "The state has dismissed our demands multiple times. It cannot be trusted."

    In 1976, the state designated the zone eligible for government health benefits based on a meteorological observatory survey conducted in the chaotic period immediately following the end of World War II that pointed to where there had been heavy rains. Two years later, residents who had been exposed to rain outside the designated zone argued that it was unreasonable for the government to draw a line through the same neighborhood, with one part falling within the zone and the other part not.

    The residents who fell outside the line established a predecessor organization to the Hiroshima prefectural black rain hibakusha liaison council. In the 42 years since, they have gathered tens of thousands of signatures for petitions, but have been repeatedly dismissed by the central government. Even when the Hiroshima municipal and prefectural governments argued for a widening of the zone eligible for health benefits, saying that black rain had fallen in an area six times that recognized by the central government, the state refused to acknowledge it. As a last-ditch effort, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2015. After a trial that lasted four years and nine months, they came out victorious. But by then, 12 of the plaintiffs had died, missing out on the opportunity to rejoice together.

    "The state's thinking of not giving us the recognition of being hibakusha and appealing the ruling, while considering expanding the zone in which people can receive state health benefits, is contradictory," said plaintiff Kazuko Morizono, 82, who was exposed to black rain in what is currently Hiroshima's Asakita Ward, some 17 kilometers north of the bomb's hypocenter. While dealing with hypothyroidism, which is suspected to come from the effects of radiation from the atomic bomb, and other disorders, she has been active in the movement to have the zone for state aid for black rain victims expanded for over 20 years. Referring to the death of a fellow plaintiff in May whom she had often seen at the trial hearings, Morizono said, "I don't have much confidence in my health, and I feel impatient that we have to hurry. Now the trial's going to last longer."

    Seventy-three-year-old Kuraso Hirotani, who was 3 when he was exposed to black rain in what is now the Hiroshima prefectural town of Akiota, around 20 kilometers northwest of the hypocenter, said with frustration, "We were all given false hope with the (district court) victory. Both the mayor and the governor were persuaded by the central government." In the Peace Declaration that the mayor of Hiroshima reads on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima every year on Aug. 6, Mayor Kazumi Matsui has over the past 10 years, including his latest speech, called on the state to "expand the 'black rain areas.'" Hirotani continued, "If you're truly a politician in a place where an atomic bomb has been dropped, you would not appeal. If they had not appealed, I would've thanked them and bowed my head."

    Meanwhile, there are those who see some hope in the state's promise to consider expanding the zone designated as having been exposed to black rain. Akie Ueda, 79, who was 4 years old when she was exposed to black rain about 9 kilometers west of the hypocenter in what is now Hiroshima's Saeki Ward, is unwell and did not join the plaintiffs' group in the lawsuit. She said, however, that "It made me a little bit happy that they cared." These days she spends most of the day in bed. "We do not have time left," she said. "I hope they come out with a good result as soon as possible."

    (Japanese original by Misa Koyama and Akari Terouchi, Hiroshima Bureau, and Shinji Kanto, Fukuyama Bureau)

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