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Nagasaki doctor, activist believes collective power still key to abolishing nuclear arms

Masao Tomonaga is seen talking about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, in Nagasaki on July 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

NAGASAKI -- The world took a major step towards becoming nuclear-free when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons banning the use and possession 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 on them to a halt. The pandemic has also thrown cold water on citizens' anti-atomic weapons activism, forcing events to be scaled back 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 -- alive today think of these dilemmas?

    Masao Tomonaga is seen walking his dog near Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki on July 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

    On July 20, when Nagasaki recorded its first extreme heat day of the year, Masao Tomonaga, the 78-year-old honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Genbaku Hospital, spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun during a walk amid the heat-haze in Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park. "I wonder if it was hot like it is now on that day," he said. Tomonaga has no memory of being exposed to the bomb at age 2.

    On Aug. 9, 76 years ago, he was exposed to the bomb while at the home he lived in with his grandfather, a doctor with his own practice. They were about 2.7 kilometers from the hypocenter, and the blast demolished the clinic and the house. Tomonaga was safe because he was caught between beams. The heat rays set the building on fire, but his mother carried him to safety.

    From the late 1940s, cases of leukemia began to rise, and a connection between exposure to the bomb and the disease was asserted. In 1962, Tomonaga enrolled at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine, and followed in the footsteps of his late father Masanobu, who worked tirelessly to treat people with A-bomb sickness and in leukemia research.

    Tomonaga became a hematologist researching treatment for hibakusha and the effects of radiation. Later, he decided he had a responsibility to tell the world about what he had found, and in his 40s he joined the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War to make known the effects atomic bombs have on the human body.

    But when it came to people who experienced the blast outside of government-specified "bomb-affected areas," and those who continued to suffer mental health issues from the atrocity, there were many points that Tomonaga could not explain with scientific evidence. He realized he wouldn't be able to help just with medicine.

    He felt keenly the abysmal brutality of the atomic bomb, and began taking part in nuclear abolition activism. In 2016, hoping to see the prohibition treaty passed, he became representative advocate for the Nagasaki Prefecture chapter of the International Signature Campaign in Support of the Appeal of the Hibakusha for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

    There were moments from his time with the movement that he cannot forget. One was when the prohibition treaty was adopted in July 2017 at U.N. Headquarters in New York. A U.S. representative spoke angrily, saying it was a dangerous treaty, and that the safety of the world would break down if nuclear arms were banned. Tomonaga thought then that he must be hearing the unvarnished views of nuclear-armed states. The shock stayed with him; it was like he'd been doused with cold water amid the joy of seeing the treaty adopted.

    The treaty went into effect in January this year, but nations with nuclear weapons and Japan, a victim of them, have turned their backs on it. The divides between the U.S., China and other nuclear powers have widened. "I don't get a sense that they're working together to find a way to abolish nuclear weapons. This despite them needing to resolve their mutual distrust," Tomonaga said.

    He also has harsh criticism for Japan, which has said it has a role in bridging the gap between nuclear and non-nuclear states in its capacity as a U.S. ally, protected by the nuclear umbrella. "An intermediary country should be working to convince nuclear states, particularly the U.S. Diplomatic efforts must be made," he said.

    In summer 2020, he joined the Hiroshima-based Nuclear-Free World Foundation, which supports activism including testimonial work by hibakusha. The group's formation was sparked by Pope Francis's 2019 visit to Japan, when he called for an end to nuclear weapons while in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alongside figures including Akira Kawasaki, an international steering committee member of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Tomonaga serves on the steering committee of the Nuclear-Free World Foundation.

    It has been 76 years since the U.S. military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the not too distant future, people who can talk about their experiences of it will have passed on.

    Tomonaga said, "Even so, the power of civil society can create a world without nuclear arms." Perhaps one day the young who have taken up their cause will push open those heavy doors. He is inspired by that belief. "History tells us. The strength of the people is greater than any office or political power."

    (Japanese original by In Tanaka, Nagasaki Bureau)

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