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'It's my last opportunity to tell people about black rain': Japanese A-bomb survivor

Kazuo Nakamura is seen talking about the fish he found floating in the Yahata River and took home after being exposed to black rain, in the Itsukaichiekimae district of Hiroshima's Saeki Ward, on Aug. 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Misa Koyama)

HIROSHIMA -- This summer, shortly after the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a letter in beautiful handwriting arrived at the Mainichi Shimbun's Hiroshima Bureau.

    "Although it was sunny out, it rained, and when I wiped the rain on my face, my palm became black. This was 'black rain,'" the letter read. It had been sent by 83-year-old Kazuo Nakamura, of the city of Hiroshima's Saeki Ward. He wrote about raw skin on people's bodies and dead fish floating in the river -- stories he had intended to take to his grave. Why, then, did he decide to speak out? This reporter went to meet him to find out.

    Nakamura has lived in the town of Itsukaichi, now part of Saeki Ward, from the time the United States military dropped the atomic bomb on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. He took me to the nearby Yahata River and said, "It started to rain on my way home from school, and around noon, the river water turned completely black. Many distressed-looking fish were floating on the surface of the water." Only a first-grade elementary school student at the time, Nakamura had no way of knowing that there were radioactive substances in the black rain.

    That morning, during the morning assembly at his school some 9 kilometers west of the bomb's hypocenter, there was a sudden flash of light. According to Nakamura, his teachers explained to them that "a new type of bomb" had been dropped, and sent the students home. As rain fell on him on his way home, Nakamura found a red, ripe tomato on a vine by a home that he passed by. It was dirtied by the black rain, but Nakamura picked it, wiped it on his shirt, and ate it.

    Subsequently, he went to the river, which had become muddied. He was taking the fish that had floated up to the water's surface when a soldier told him, "We don't know what's in the water. Get out, so that you're not harmed." The bucketful of fish Nakamura took home with him were big-scaled redfins, which were said to be so unsavory that even cats wouldn't eat them. But his mother, who was raising Nakamura on her own after his father had died in battle the year before, was overjoyed, because they rarely ever got to eat fish on rations. Nakamura was nostalgic as he told the story. "It was the first time I ate fish with the head and tail still on it. It didn't taste very good, but I was just happy we were eating fish."

    Kazuo Nakamura is seen here after going bald following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Though it is unclear when exactly the photo was taken, it is believed that it was around the time he was in the upper grades of elementary school. (Photo courtesy of Kazuo Nakamura)

    The following day, Nakamura went to the city of Hiroshima to help neighbors search for their relatives. Bodies were being lined up on Aioi Bridge, near the bomb's hypocenter. The skin on the bodies were raw from being burned, and they were being dragged about with sticks so that people did not have to touch them with their hands. "That's horrible. Is that what happens when you die?" Nakamura remembers thinking. Those who had been injured were brought to the school Nakamura attended, but it was much busier digging holes to bury bones and ashes than it was to treat people. In the end there wasn't enough space, so bones and ashes were spread over rice paddies.

    By the end of August, Nakamura's hair had started to fall out, and eventually all of it fell out. It took several years for it to grow back, and he was made fun of at school for being bald. His mother's chronic health problems deteriorated, and she died 10 years later at the age of 39. It was at a time that Nakamura was studying hard so that he could find a well-paying job that would allow his mother to take it easy. Following graduation from high school, Nakamura worked at a confectionery company, got married, and had two sons.

    Fortunately, he has never been seriously ill, but he does have fears. "The atomic bomb lives inside my body," he said. "You never know when its effects will come out. Radiation never dies." However, years went by without him obtaining an A-bomb survivor's certificate, and he lost track of the whereabouts of the people who he was with at the time who could have provided proof that he was indeed an A-bomb survivor. As for black rain, the place where Nakamura was at the time it fell was excluded, in 1976, from zones designated by the Japanese government as having been exposed to black rain.

    "People who have experienced war never forget it," Nakamura said. Why did he send a letter to the Mainichi's Hiroshima Bureau, when he still has nightmares about that time? It was because he had read an Aug. 6 Mainichi article about residents in a community that had been determined not to have been exposed to black rain in a past survey providing testimony of black rain for the first time, 76 years after it fell. "Talking about it doesn't mean someone will take over these experiences that I've gone through," Nakamura said. "But the number of people who can offer their testimony is decreasing. If my story can add to the argument that 'atomic bombs are wrong,' then I want to tell my story."

    In a ruling handed down by the Hiroshima High Court in July, 84 people who had until now been considered out of the black rain zone were all recognized as A-bomb survivors. The ruling has since been finalized, and authorities are also considering offering relief to those who were not plaintiffs in the case. Nakamura intends to apply for an A-bomb survivor's certificate. "The government abandoned the survivors of black rain for 76 years. This is the final opportunity. We have to tell people about the horrors of the atomic bomb," Nakamura said.

    (Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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