TOKYO -- The world took a major step toward a nuclear-free world when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons completely banning the use and storage of atomic arms went into effect in January.
Nuclear powers and countries like Japan which are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella have not signed the treaty, only going as far as joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but the influence of the ban treaty on the NPT is enormous.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that top-level meetings concerning both treaties have not been held as planned, grinding international discussion of them to a halt. The pandemic has also thrown cold water on citizens' anti-atomic weapons activism, forcing events to be minimized or canceled outright.
With the 76th anniversaries of America's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fast approaching, what do hibakusha -- people exposed to the effects of the bomb -- still alive today think of these dilemmas?
"This is the only country in the world to have been attacked with nuclear bombs in wartime, and yet it can't ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I think it's so pitiful, so disgraceful," said Terumi Tanaka, the 89-year-old co-chair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations. Anger laced his calm tones, obvious even over the online video conference.
In response to the nuclear arms ban treaty going into effect, Tanaka began a petition drive to urge the Japanese government to join the treaty. But half a year has passed now with him unable to go out in the streets due to the pandemic.
His time spent at home in the Saitama Prefecture city of Niiza has gotten longer. "Before, I'd go out because I couldn't stand being still. But now I don't have the energy to run from place to place," he said. Although Tanaka says he is starting to feel his physical limits, if he has a request to speak about his experiences as a hibakusha, he uses his trusty computer to talk to people in and out of Japan from home.
The treaty went into effect Jan. 22. When the long-awaited moment came, a rejoicing Tanaka said, "This is a day that will go down in history." To his associates who died before seeing it come to pass, he tells them in his heart that they have made it half-way down the path to abolishing the weapons.
But the remaining half is still precarious. Countries with nuclear weapons won't attend the conference of the signatories, and only countries without the arms will need to seek ways to ban them. "How do we get nuclear-armed countries involved? I think a time is coming where a great effort will have to be put in (to activism)," he said.
Getting nuclear powers and those under the nuclear umbrella like Japan to take part is no simple task. But while the coronavirus has prevented certain forms of activism, and spread with apparent ease across borders, Tanaka sees a silver lining in the situation, saying, "It's presented the opportunity to realize that the conflicts countries have between each other are meaningless."
With this year marking the 65th anniversary of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations' founding, Tanaka had in mind that it would mark a sense of closure. Its general meeting is held every June, but due to the state of emergency declared in Tokyo, it has been turned into an on-paper event this year.
"It was very disappointing. We'd needed to do a full review of our activism so far," Tanaka said regretfully. The average age of hibakusha now is over 83. The generation of people with clear, unshakeable memories of that time like Tanaka, who was 13 when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, are gradually but steadily leaving this world.
"We experienced that sound with our bodies. The people who will make up the core of the activism going forward were very young children when they were exposed to the bomb, so they have few memories of the time involving their five senses. But, they might at some point remember what was for them a strange experience. In that sense, those people can be said to have experienced it first hand, too," he said.
In March, Tanaka ended the international campaign he has pursued for five years to see an earlier implementation of the ban treaty. At the end of May, he resigned as chair of the Saitama Prefecture hibakusha association. After days spent passionately involved in anti-nuclear activism, Tanaka is thinking of using the time he has now to write about the life he spent giving himself to his work.
"Nuclear weapons are so cruel it seems they don't even qualify for the name 'weapon'. This testimony must, even when all the hibakusha are gone, be passed down for as long as the human race exists," Tanaka said.
(Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Tokyo City News Department)