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'We cannot leave things to others': Woman devotes years to helping A-bomb survivors (Pt. 1)

Tamiko Nishimoto conveys the tragedy of the atomic bombing at a presentation of a picture-story show based on the experiences of the late Mikiso Iwasa, the first president of the Ishikawa prefectural A-bomb survivor's organization, in Kanazawa, on Feb. 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

KANAZAWA -- It has been 76 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The number of atomic bomb survivors in central Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture has decreased by about half from 10 years ago, to 64 as of the end of March 2021. As they continue to age, the prefecture's A-bomb survivor's organization has decided to close after this fiscal year.

    What have some of these A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, who left the devastated cities and now live in Ishikawa Prefecture, been thinking about? A Mainichi Shimbun reporter, a third-generation survivor of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki, interviewed them.

    Tamiko Nishimoto, 80, a resident of Kanazawa and president of the prefectural A-bomb survivor's organization, who experienced the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, quietly began to talk about that day.

    Nishimoto was born in the city of Hiroshima in 1940, the youngest of five siblings.

    On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, her mother, who was on "building demolition" duty, in which people destroy buildings to prevent fires from spreading during air raids, was not feeling well, so she and Nishimoto, who was 4 years old at the time, were at home about 2.3 kilometers from the hypocenter.

    Nishimoto heard a boy shouting, "B-29!" so she followed her mother, who had gone to look outside. When the girl saw the B-29 flying and took a few steps away from the window, she was enveloped in a tremendous flash of light, as if thousands of camera flashes had simultaneously gone off. Then the whole area went dark.

    Tamiko Nishimoto delivers a CD of a song about the preciousness of "children of peace," a memorial statue for A-bomb victims, to elementary school students in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture, on May 27, 2019. The statue was placed on Mount Utatsu in Kanazawa by A-bomb survivors and others in the prefecture. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    As tiles fell from the roof of their home, Nishimoto's mother grabbed her by the arm and ran into a closet. When the girl went outside a while later, she found that the walls and roof of their house had fallen down and the interior was a mess. In the room where she had been with her mother just before, the Japanese-style chest was overturned.

    "I remember the light. I was saved by the voice of a boy," Nishimoto recalled.

    Her third-grade sister, who was on her way to school, came home with a piece of wood stuck in the back of her head, staining her back with blood. She tried to go and see a doctor, but a man she passed on the way told her, "That's not a wound. There are many people who almost died. You should go home," so she turned back.

    The three of them fled to a vineyard on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and after a while, the rest of the family, including Nishimoto's father, who was out of the prefecture on business, and her eldest sister, who was out of the city, came together. Fortunately, none of the seven were seriously injured.

    Next to the family, there was a person who had suffered severe burns. Their hair was burned and their face was swollen like a dodgeball, with no description of the look or gender. A name tag on the chest indicated that she was a female student. It seemed that she could not even make a moan.

    In the vineyard, where they spent three days and three nights, they were given only hardtack to eat. To stave off hunger, Nishimoto ate unripe green grapes that grew in the fields. Then, she developed symptoms of fever, diarrhea and vomiting. It was many years later that she learned that the illness was not caused by the grapes, but she had acute symptoms of exposure to radiation.

    At the age of 27, Nishimoto married a man, who was frequently transferred to other cities for work, and they moved from Hiroshima to Sapporo. She could not hide her surprise at the differences between Sapporo and the A-bombed city of Hiroshima.

    Those who have been issued the Atomic Bomb Survivor's Certificate are entitled to free medical care. However, when Nishimoto went to the hospital and showed them the certificate, they said, "What is that? We can't accept it." Even when she explained the system to them, they still did not accept it.

    Sometimes people asked Nishimoto, "What are hibakusha?" She realized the differences in the situation A-bomb survivors face.

    After learning of a Hokkaido prefectural A-bomb survivors' organization, she became involved and worked to increase the number of designated hospitals where the hibakusha certificate would be accepted.

    In 1974, Nishimoto moved to Kanazawa after her husband was transferred there for work, but the situation was the same as in Sapporo. She learned that there were many people who hid their A-bomb status for fear of discrimination, saying that their children's marriage discussions would be ruined if others found out that their parents were A-bomb survivors.

    Nishimoto has served as an agent for A-bomb survivors in Ishikawa Prefecture, writing applications and taking the necessary steps to apply for the authorization of Atomic Bomb Diseases, under which the Japanese government provides a special medical allowance of about 140,000 yen (about $1,270) per month to A-bomb survivors who became ill from radiation from the atomic bombings.

    Nishimoto has also been involved in storytelling in more than 10 countries, including the U.K. and the U.S., and in the production of DVDs featuring the testimonies of A-bomb survivors.

    A friend once said to Nishimoto sarcastically, "You're so cheerful. Did the A-bombing make you energetic?" However, for people to understand the position of A-bomb survivors, she could not stop her activities.

    Seventy-six years have passed since the atomic bombings, and the average age of hibakusha in Ishikawa Prefecture has reached 85, with the number of them decreasing significantly. After much deliberation, Nishimoto decided to close the prefecture's A-bomb survivor's organization.

    Looking back on her life in which she devoted herself to the campaign to support A-bomb survivors, the 80-year-old woman said, "It was not an ordinary thing. I couldn't have done it half-heartedly." Still, it was anger that drove her. "It is unacceptable for any human being to suddenly have their family taken away from them one day."

    More than anything else, Nishimoto did not want to see another A-bomb survivor like herself or any other hibakusha suffer from prejudice. That was her only thought.

    However, Nishimoto has some regrets too. In January of this year, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect, but Japan, which depends on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, has not ratified it. She feels that this is where "the seeds of danger lie."

    Nishimoto intensified her words, "We cannot leave things to others. We must do our best ourselves. If we don't get stronger, nuclear weapons will never be eliminated."

    (This is part one of a two-part series)

    (Japanese original by Chinatsu Ide, Hokuriku General Bureau)

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