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Hibakusha: Eagerly awaiting pandemic's end to resume passing down story of atomic bomb

Sakue Shimohira, center, is welcomed by high school students at an event to pass down experiences of the atomic bomb in the southwestern Japan city of Nagasaki, on Aug. 8, 2017. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

NAGASAKI -- Even at age 86, it is a sight that Sakue Shimohira cannot forget. It was June 23, 1955, a decade after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. Her younger sister, the only other family member who had managed to survive the bombing, had thrown herself in front of a train. She was just 18. When Shimohira went to hold her sister's head at the site of the incident, the front of her shirt turned red with blood.

    "My sister chose not the courage to live, but the courage to die," Shimohira says. Even though she has told her story at least 10,000 times, each time she comes to this part, her eyes well up with tears and she cannot make herself utter her sister's name. Yet, she continues to share her story. "Atomic bombs rob surviving victims of their dreams, hopes and lives," she says.

    Shimohira, who was born in what was then Manchuria (present day northeastern China), and her younger sister Ryoko, were taken in by relatives in the western Japan city of Nagasaki in 1940 when their father died. There, they began a new life with a new set of parents and siblings.

    On Aug. 9, 1945, sirens warning residents of an imminent bombing had blared since morning. Shimohira, with her one-year-old nephew on her back, evacuated to a bomb shelter. When the sirens stopped and she set out to leave the shelter, she was reminded of what her older brother, who was attending what is now the medical school of Nagasaki University, had said the night before.

    "The new bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima came after the air-raid sirens were turned off. You shouldn't leave the bomb shelter (when that happens)," he'd said. If it wasn't for her brother's words, Shimohira wouldn't have survived.

    Sakue Shimohira talks to students on their school graduation trip with tears in her eyes about her experience of the atomic bomb in the southwestern Japan city of Nagasaki, on May 8, 2014. (Mainichi/Minoru Kanazawa)

    At 11:02 a.m., following a sharp flash that penetrated the eyes, Shimohira was banged up against a rock face by a blast of air and lost consciousness. When she came to, the shelter had turned into hell on earth. Puffy, charred people and those whose eyeballs and innards had been blown out were groaning sounds that failed to constitute full words.

    When Shimohira walked through the burnt ruins and arrived at her home, 300 meters from the bomb's hypocenter, she found her mother and older sister burned black under some rubble. "Mom!" she said, as she rushed to her side. But as soon as Shimohira touched her, her mother crumbled. Several days later, her older brother died, too, after saying, "I don't want to die. I want to become a respectable doctor."

    Following the end of the war, Shimohira was destitute. Shimohira and her neighbors built a makeshift home, and five households huddled together in a 15-tatami-mat space. Meals consisted of grass they picked and canned food and sausages that troops from the occupation forces had thrown out.

    "I didn't think of myself as pathetic," Shimohira says. "It was what I had to do to live."

    But her sister, Ryoko, gradually began to lose the will to live. As an aftereffect of being exposed to the atomic bomb, the scars on her abdomen would not heal, and maggots fed on her rotting flesh, causing her to be bullied at school. Shimohira and her sister did not have the money for a doctor.

    "It's better to die. Let's go where Mom is," Shimohira's sister said. Shimohira tried to lift her sister's spirits, telling her, "We made it through the bombing, so we have to make the best of our lives." But Shimohira's words failed to reach her.

    Sakue Shimohira pushes her husband Takatoshi's wheelchair around the garden of St. Francis hospital in the southwestern Japan city of Nagasaki, on Feb. 21, 2009. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

    When Shimohira herself stood on the same train tracks after losing her sister, it was her childhood friend, Takatoshi, who stopped her from choosing the fate that her sister had. Brushing aside objections from those around them that a couple in which both parties are hibakusha -- survivors of the atomic bomb -- would face too many hardships down the road, the two married in late 1955. They were blessed with a son and two daughters. But since in her late 20s, Shimohira had to have her uterus and ovaries removed due to tumors, and Takatoshi started suffering from numbness and trembling in his hands.

    "Hibakusha always have ailments that don't make any sense," people would audibly say about them.

    Discrimination toward hibakusha was deeply rooted. At the private inquiry agency where Shimohira worked part time as a typist when she was a junior college student, there were many clients asking to find out whether a potential fiance was hibakusha or not. Many promises to marry were broken off when people found out that the other party was hibakusha. Shimohira's anxiety and anger over the possibility that her own children could suffer the same discrimination was what motivated her to engage in the hibakusha movement.

    There was at least one year when she stood on podiums over 300 times to tell her story, and soon became a symbolic figure in the world of those who speak about their Nagasaki atomic bomb experiences. At the August 1981 Nagasaki Peace Ceremony, she read the vow for peace as a representative of hibakusha. Starting with the 2nd United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in 1982, she has participated in a range of international meetings, including the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), calling for "No more hibakusha."

    Shimohira's motivation to talk about her experiences has not waned in the least. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, she has not been on stage since December 2020, but she is looking eagerly forward to the day that the pandemic is brought under control.

    "My family and friends come to me in my dreams and tell me that I can't join them until we get rid of nuclear weapons. So I have to continue talking until I die," she says.

    (Japanese original by In Tanaka, Nagasaki Bureau)

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