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Japanese-American in-utero A-bomb survivor recalls family struggles, Obama's Hiroshima tour

Toshiharu Kano, right, and his elder sister, Yorie Kano, left, are seen at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)
Toshiharu Kano is seen at his home in Utah in July 2021. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)

TOKYO -- Toshiharu Kano, a Japanese-American survivor of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, was too young to remember the day of the blast as he was still in his mother's womb at the time. Yet he has felt the effects of the bombing on his health and life for decades since his childhood. He recently spoke in an online interview with The Mainichi, recounting what he and his family have gone through since after the bombing and sharing his views toward realizing a nuclear-free world. He was one of the A-bomb survivors invited to attend a ceremony when then U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016.

    Kano was born in Furuichi, in present-day Asaminami Ward in the city of Hiroshima, on March 1, 1946, almost seven months after the U.S. military dropped the first nuclear bomb used in warfare on the city. His mother was only 800 meters from the hypocenter on the day of the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, when he was just 12 weeks inside her womb, at their single-level wooden house in the city's Nishihakushima area, near Hiroshima Castle, in present-day Naka Ward. When he was born, he weighed less than 5 pounds (about 2.3 kilograms).

    "I was very sickly when I was growing up. I could not fight just a simple flu," Kano, 75, now residing in Millcreek in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah, told The Mainichi, as he described how weakened his immune system was. "I had (the) mumps, kidney failure at 8, lost 20% of left lung with tuberculosis, and missed many days of school with bronchitis and other respiratory diseases."

    Toshiharu Kano is seen in school uniform on April 5, 1952, when he was 6 years old. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)
    Toshiharu Kano and his elder sister, Yorie Kano, are seen in an area of Hiroshima near where their family used to live, in Nishihakushima in present-day Naka Ward, in this photo taken in May 2016. "I wanted to see where my family used to live (before I was born), and our taxi driver took us to the address," Kano says. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)

    "I was off school so much that I fell so far behind my fellow classmates. When they had an exam at the end of the month, I did not go out to look at the total points on the exam. I knew I was the last or next to last," he said, recalling his elementary school days in Tokyo's Shinagawa, where his family had moved from Hiroshima Prefecture in 1950.

    "I was so ashamed and humiliated that I wanted to kill myself to restore honor to my parents. I stood on the top of the railroad bridge and waited for a train to pass by so I could throw myself in front of the train," he said.

    But the train didn't come, bringing Kano -- aged about 8 at the time -- back from the brink of crisis.

    Eventually, he was recognized by the Japanese government as an hibakusha, or an A-bomb survivor. "I was not a bunch of tissues (when the bomb fell). My DNA was completed and I had heartbeats. I was a living baby. The government recognized this fact and issued a hibakusha medical notebook (Atomic bomb survivor's certificate) in 1960," he said.

    His parents were born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1914, as second-generation Japanese-Americans, and Kano is the third-generation. Kano's family moved back to the United States in 1961 and regained their American citizenship, when he was close to 15 years old.

    In 2002, during the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, Kano met a research scientist from Los Alamos, New Mexico.

    "I introduced myself as a hibakusha who was there at 800 meters from the hypocenter in Hiroshima," Kano said, recounting his conversation with the researcher. "He could not believe that our family survived. He told me that I was very lucky to have survived the bomb."

    The scientist told him, "You are the most amazing person that I have met and spoken to," and shook his hand and gave him a big hug, according to Kano.

    Kano worked as a professional civil engineer in the U.S. for decades, including for the Utah Department of Transportation and the Salt Lake County Public Works, until he retired in June 2020. He still works as a project manager for a construction company. "All total I worked for more than 52 years as a public servant. I only missed 10 days of work," he says.

    U.S. President Barack Obama observes a moment of silence in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo taken by Guillaume Serina and provided by Toshiharu Kano)
    U.S. President Barack Obama lays a wreath of flowers in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo taken by Guillaume Serina and provided by Toshiharu Kano)

    In May 2016, Kano and his older sister, Yorie Kano, who lives in California, attended a ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park when President Barack Obama visited the city as the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

    "My sister and I received a call from one of the White House staffers asking us to attend President Obama's visit to Hiroshima. I was stunned and in disbelief," Kano recalls.

    "Apparently one of my sister's friends had been in touch with the American Embassy in Tokyo telling about our stories," Kano said. "The last time when I visited (the center of) Hiroshima city was with my grandfather in 1948 and we went inside of the (A-bomb) Dome. I remember clearly as yesterday. There was a big table at the center with the model structures of the city. There was dust everywhere and broken chunks of concrete everywhere," Kano said, reflecting on his visit when he was 2 years old. "I wanted to go visit new Hiroshima. I was so honored and excited to attend President Obama's trip to Hiroshima," he said.

    "When we got to Hiroshima, the security was very, very tight. We were escorted by the national police to the ceremony. There were so many people around us, but they were kept away from us at least 100 yards away. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I will always remember our experience," he said.

    Toshiharu Kano, right, and his elder sister, Yorie Kano, center, are seen at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo taken by Guillaume Serina and provided by Toshiharu Kano)
    Toshiharu Kano, with a red tie on, and his sister Yorie Kano, sitting at his left, are seen during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo taken by Guillaume Serina and provided by Toshiharu Kano)

    "President Obama's speech was delivered for reconciliation. It was the historical event where for the first time a sitting President of the United States visited Hiroshima and placed a wreath at the Hiroshima Memorial and shook hands and exchanged hugs (with hibakusha)," Kano said.

    "They were the greatest moments. The speech was great and well delivered. I have witnessed a historical event. I was part of this. As one of the youngest Japanese-American survivors of the bomb at 800 meters from the hypocenter, I could not believe what was happening. I was totally overwhelmed. Tears came down from my eyes," he reminisced.

    Because of the heavy security, Kano and his sister could not talk to Obama. "My sister and I wished for more interactions with President Obama. We were there to support his visit. I wanted to shake hand and give him a big hug. I wanted to tell him, 'Thank you for the invitation and job well done,'" he said.

    Regarding the modern-day Hiroshima, Kano said, "It was a beautiful city. I did not recognize it."

    A father of two with two grandchildren, Kano confessed that he had been worried about having children because of possible effects from the bomb's radiation. "I was afraid to have a child, but I took a chance," he said. He still suffers from an array of health issues today.

    "Right now I have completely lost hearing in my left ear. As a result of this, I have ringing in the ear as long as I am awake. I have been suffering from Type 2 diabetes for the last 15 years. I am also suffering from high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Last year, I developed lumps on both of my eyelids due to the effects of exposure to high levels of radiation. It makes my eyes red and dry," he says.

    Toshiharu Kano, front left, is seen with his sister Yorie, right, and mother Shizue, background, in this photo taken in 1952. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)
    Toshiharu Kano's mother, Shizue, is seen holding Kano's elder brother, Toshio, while his sister Yorie stands by her, in this photo taken in spring of 1945. According to Kano, this is the only existing photo of Toshio. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)
    Toshiharu Kano's mother, Shizue, is seen in this photo taken in 1934, when she was 20 years old. (Photo courtesy of Toshiharu Kano)

    He was not the only one in his family who was affected by the bomb's radiation. Kano's father, Toshiyuki, who worked for the fifth army headquarters in Hiroshima, was walking about 1 kilometer away from the hypocenter when the atomic bomb exploded from behind on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. "He was one step outside of a railroad overpass, so he was inside of a shadow of the overpass except that his head was outside of the shadow. He got burned on the back of his neck, but the rest of the body, he was not burned, so he survived the blast," Kano said.

    As Kano's father was a high-ranking officer in the Japanese army and was a civil engineer, he was given the responsibility of cleaning up Hiroshima city. "He was exposed to a lot of the fallout radiation. And two weeks after the bomb was dropped, he developed radiation sickness," Kano says. "But he recovered from that because a doctor gave him a treatment -- eating one raw onion a day for three weeks. That saved his life," Kano said. His father passed away in 1976 at age 62.

    Kano's elder brother, Toshio, who was only 16 months old when the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, died two months later, in October 1945, after showing signs of radiation sickness. His father was devastated at the loss of his son. Later, when Kano was born after the war, his father was so happy and thrilled to have another son, and his grandfather hoisted a paper "koi" (carp) streamer at the front of their home, signifying a boy was born to the family.

    Kano's elder sister, Yorie, was 2 years old when the bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. She was also only 800 meters from the hypocenter, at her family home with her mother and younger brother Toshio. "She really feels that she's not a normal person," Kano says. "She didn't want to get married and have a child, so she never married. She was afraid that she was not a normal lady, because of the radiation."

    "When I was growing up," Kano says, "there were well known facts that women will not marry a man or men will not marry a woman that was from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. They were afraid that they were exposed to the radiation. And they would consider them as not normal and that they would produce abnormal children. That's why my sister never married. Because she was so scared that she was not going to bring a normal child."

    After all that he and his family have gone through, Kano has shared his earnest wishes for a world without nuclear weapons with younger generations both American and Japanese, giving lectures at places including Utah, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., talking about what had happened to himself and his family. He and his wife also co-authored a book, titled "Passport To Hiroshima: The Unthinkable, Inspiring Journey of a Japanese-American Family Based on a True Story." It took the couple four years to complete the 374-page book.

    "We must not repeat Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever again. It is unthinkable for any nation and person to use these horrible weapons against our humanity," Kano stressed.

    Toshiharu Kano offers a prayer in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. (Photo taken by Guillaume Serina and provided by Toshiharu Kano)

    "Today, we have over an estimated 13,000 nuclear warheads between nine nations," Kano said, adding, "Some of the warheads are thousands of times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was only 15,000 tons of TNT. It is totally insane."

    "A lot of things in history are slipping away. A lot of American and Japanese kids do not know what really happened that day. If you don't know the history, you have a tendency of repeating again. So it's very important to know what really happened. That's why I teach people today what happened so that younger generations will not repeat (the mistake)," Kano said.

    Kano is determined to continue helping other people recognize how terrible it was to use nuclear weapons against humanity. "I'm totally committed to spreading that to the world, to the rest of the people," he said.

    (By Tetsuko Yoshida, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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