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Zainichi Korean hibakusha passes on experience of A-bomb to future storytellers

Pak Nam-ju talks about her experiences during a training session for people who will be passing down stories about hibakusha, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on July 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- Eighty-eight-year-old Pak Nam-ju laughed that she'd gotten off topic. The 14 people being trained to carry on passing down the stories of Pak's experience as a hibakusha, or survivor of the atomic bomb, smiled back at her. It was July 15, and the people who gathered were learning to become storytellers of hibakusha experiences.

    Pak had been explaining to the trainees the state of the bodies she saw after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but before she knew it, she was talking about the soybeans she often ate after the war. "I'm so forgetful these days," she said. But as she then went on to talk about the color of the bodies turning from red to blue, then to black, the students in the training program were drawn into every word. "The atomic bomb was just too cruel," Pak said. "I will continue giving my testimony for as long as I can speak."

    Pak's activities are centered at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the museum was closed for about six months starting in spring 2020, which dramatically reduced the activities she was able to join. When the second state of emergency declaration in Hiroshima Prefecture was lifted, she told her story four times in July this year. Perhaps because it had been a while since she last spoke of her A-bomb experiences, she forgot to talk about the black oil-like rain that she was exposed to. " It was actually an important moment in which I thought, 'Some special bomb had been dropped on us, and we had to get away.' So these days, I keep notes with me," she said. She wants to treasure the few opportunities she has to talk about her experiences. It provides her with interpersonal interactions that have decreased due to the coronavirus pandemic, too: "It makes me happy to talk to people."

    Pak Nam-ju speaks with trainees during a training session for people who will be passing down stories about hibakusha, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on July 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    Born in Hiroshima, Pak is a second-generation "Zainichi" Korean, or a Korean resident of Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, when Pak was just a schoolgirl, the atomic bomb detonated when she was riding a streetcar about 1.9 kilometers west of the hypocenter. When she jumped off the streetcar, which had become enveloped in flames, she recalls, "Hiroshima was gone." All the buildings in the city had been leveled in the blast, and Pak felt the blood drain from her face. It was when she was escaping toward the mountains northwest of the hypocenter that black rain fell on her.

    After the war, Pak married at the age of 17, and the twins that she gave birth to both died with nary a cry. Unable to find work, she made and sold candy and bootleg liquor, and even raised pigs to make a living. She faced cancer three times, and looking back at her life, says, "It was hard to just live." Still, she rejoiced in having life. But when asked why she was able to survive in Hiroshima, where many schoolgirls were killed by the atomic blast while tearing down buildings for fire breaks, she felt guilty. Because of this, she did not advertise the fact that she was a survivor. But then her husband died at the age of 69. Sometime after his death, she was asked about her experiences by students whom she happened upon at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which prompted her to become a hibakusha storyteller.

    Hoping to share her experiences with children from all over the country, she registered as a speaker with the museum. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were periods when she made three presentations a day. Her calendar for June in 2019 was filled with appointments; she had only 2 days completely free. But still, she was "filled with the desire to communicate the horrors of the atomic bomb" and never turned down a request to hear her stories.

    "I rarely hear the word 'pikadon' (an onomatopoeia expressing the flash and sound of the atomic bomb) these days," Pak said, wondering, with the reduced load of work amid the coronavirus crisis, if memories of the atomic bombing were fading away. She feels panic at the fact that the number of people who remember the blinding light, the deafening sound, and the horrific aftermath is falling. Among the testimony providers registered with the museum, five passed away during the 2020 fiscal year. Pak, too, feels her age when her knees ache or her memory fails her, but her desire to tell her stories has not waned one iota.

    The Jan. 22 entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons banning the use or possession of nuclear weapons was an ardent wish of Pak's. But both South Korea and Japan are dependent on the American nuclear umbrella and are not party to the treaty.

    "I can't understand; there are hibakusha," she said. But that is precisely why she continues to talk about her experiences. To the people who will soon be passing down her stories, she repeated what she wanted them to remember most: "In just one blast, an entire city disappeared, and people were massacred. It was all too cruel." She continued, "Please carefully protect the peace that has been built on top of so much sorrow. We must never allow nuclear weapons to be used again. That is my conviction."

    (Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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