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Film about life of Hiroshima A-bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow hits screens in Japan

Setsuko Thurlow gives testimony as she spreads a cloth with the names of students from her alma mater Hiroshima Jogakuin Girls' High School who passed away in the atomic bombing, at the school in this image taken from the film "The Vow from Hiroshima."

TOKYO -- Screenings of a documentary film depicting the life of Hiroshima atomic-bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who has been calling for nuclear abolition, began at theaters in Tokyo and other cities in Japan on April 17.

    "The Vow from Hiroshima" is about 89-year-old Thurlow, a "hibakusha" who currently lives in Canada. The A-bomb survivor has been calling for nuclear abolition, and is one of the central figures who promoted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

    When she went to the United States to study in the 1950s, Thurlow used to ask herself whether she should keep silent about having been exposed to the bomb's radiation as she was caught between Japanese and U.S. interpretations of the atomic bombings. So why has she decided to continue telling her story?

    "Millions of people worked together for the nuclear ban treaty to enter into force -- a first step," Thurlow said. "I think it's very important to have people feel the background of the issue through the film."

    Thurlow told her story in an online interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, with the treaty having entered into force in January 2021. The film recorded her activities in the U.S., Hiroshima and other places closely for about four years from 2015, and caught the moment when the treaty was adopted in the United Nations in July 2017 and her speech at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December 2017. The film also overlaps with the life of its producer, Mitchie Takeuchi, a second-generation hibakusha who lives in the U.S., as she looked into her family history.

    Thurlow explained that American director Susan Strickler had asked her to take part in the film, saying, "Thanks to one woman who survived an atomic bombing and started taking action alone while living for a long time away from her home country, a milestone in the move toward nuclear abolition was achieved. We need to record this."

    Thurlow, who was exposed to the atomic bomb at age 13, graduated from a university in Hiroshima and enrolled in the University of Lynchburg in the U.S. in 1954, about half a year after the Japanese tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru was exposed to radiation after a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini Atoll. When asked for her opinion on the Pacific Ocean incident as a Japanese person, Thurlow honestly answered, "This mustn't happen to humankind again." Harsh reactions to her comments, such as "Who started the war at Pearl Harbor?" and "Go home if you're against the U.S. nuclear policy," followed. Thurlow, then 22, wondered whether she should remain silent after such intense criticism.

    However, Thurlow never lost her sense of mission as a hibakusha, and thought, "A person who knows about that suffering must not pretend to know nothing." She proactively went around talking about her experience as a hibakusha, mostly in North America.

    As the idea of nuclear weapons being a "necessary evil" in the world is still deeply rooted, Thurlow has faced reactions such as "Why do you tell us a story we don't want to hear?" Though she said, "It was a long, tough road," her late Canadian husband Jim Thurlow, who passed away in 2011, supported her for many years. Setsuko had him read her speeches and received advice from him on her presentations. The film also introduces the first meeting of the couple and a photo from their wedding in Washington D.C., not Virginia, where non-White people could not hold weddings, after overcoming their parents' opposition.

    The "vow" in the film title refers to her feelings when the treaty was adopted. Thurlow explained that she thought of atomic bomb victims while being surrounded by people embracing each other at the United Nations chamber. She said: "I renewed my vow for those who burned to death, those who were abandoned and died with no medication, no food, no doctors, no one. 'We've come this far. Please wait a little while longer. I will see this through to the end.'" However, issues remain for the treaty's effective implementation because the global nuclear powers have not ratified it. Thurlow and her supporters are initially aiming to convince Canada and Japan to ratify the treaty.

    The film was not originally planned for release across Japan, and at first was only screened in a small number of theaters in Hiroshima and other areas. But after the film was favorably accepted, its nationwide release was decided and photos and videos shot around the world on Jan. 22 -- the day the treaty entered into force -- have been added to the documentary. Theaters and schedules for "The Vow from Hiroshima" can be seen on the film's official website at www.hiroshimaenochikai.com.

    Thurlow said through tears: "There were hundreds of thousands of people around us in Hiroshima and Nagasaki such as school friends and family who were scorched to death. I witnessed the scenes and they still remain in my mind. As a citizen of a country that was hit by atomic bombings, I feel Japanese people have more of a responsibility than other people in the world to speak out against the use of these weapons."

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Tokyo City News Department)

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