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A-bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow hopes Japan's new PM can lead nuclear disarmament debate

This Dec. 5, 2018 file photo shows Setsuko Thurlow, right, speaking with then Liberal Democratic Party Policy Research Council chief Fumio Kishida at the party's headquarters in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

HIROSHIMA -- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) Fumio Kishida was elected prime minister on Oct. 4, the first time in 30 years a politician from a Hiroshima Prefecture constituency has assumed the office.

    In a telephone interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, Setsuko Thurlow, 89, welcomed the appointment of a prime minister from Hiroshima and shared a message for Kishida, who is a distant relative. Now a resident of Canada, Thurlow was exposed to the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, devoted herself to the campaign for nuclear abolition for many years, and was the first A-bomb survivor to deliver a speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2017.

    Thurlow has engaged in activism with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international NGO that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, and has continued to relay her experience of the atomic bombing. She was invited along with ICAN's executive director to the Nobel Prize ceremony, where they received a medal and certificate.

    In December 2018, Thurlow went to LDP headquarters in Tokyo to meet with Kishida for the first time, when he was chair of the party's Policy Research Council. On her impressions of him, she said, "I was worried he might have a politician's arrogance, but when I met him, we were able to talk openly."

    The Japanese government does not participate in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which bans the possession and use of nuclear weapons and came into force in January 2021. It does however consider it its duty to be a bridge between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states.

    Thurlow dismissed this stance, saying, "There's no explanation as to how this role will be accomplished, it's just an excuse." From her overseas vantage on the Japanese government's response to nuclear issues, she said, "Japan has lacked a leader who can lead the discussion. This has prevented the voices of the people and A-bomb survivors from being heard, and stopped discussion of important issues such as nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition."

    As a politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has a strong commitment to nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. During his tenure as foreign minister starting in 2012, he established the "Group of Eminent Persons," a group of experts from both nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, and has worked on nuclear disarmament. In 2016, when then President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Kishida provided explanations to the president at Peace Memorial Park.

    Thurlow does not believe that just because Kishida has become prime minister, the Japanese government's stance on the TPNW and other issues will easily change. But she noted that "the fact he is a prime minister from Hiroshima means the world will watch him more closely than ever."

    Setsuko Thurlow is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 28, 2019. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    In addition to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference, which nuclear-weapon states, Japan, and other countries are participating in as a framework for promoting nuclear disarmament, the first conference of the parties to the TPNW is scheduled for next year. It marks a major milestone in nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition.

    Thurlow said, "We need to listen to the opinions of non-nuclear-weapon states seeking nuclear abolition, and to put ourselves in their shoes."

    What has courted attention is the "listening ability" Kishida promoted throughout his LDP presidential campaign. When he announced his candidacy on Aug. 26, he emphasized his achievements by holding up a notebook in which he said he had "written down the voices of the people." On Sept. 29, the day he was elected LDP president, he said, "My specialty is to listen carefully to people."

    Thurlow expressed hope that Kishida would "listen to the voices of citizens and A-bomb survivors and exercise leadership."

    If Kishida remains in office until Hiroshima Peace Memorial Day on Aug. 6 next year, he will attend the Peace Memorial Ceremony as a prime minister elected from Hiroshima and read an address.

    Thurlow said, "If a nuclear war starts, millions will die. I sincerely hope Kishida will see the nuclear issue from a humanitarian perspective, not just a military perspective, and convey a message at the forefront of nuclear abolition."

    Can Kishida use his listening skills to become a leader who can direct discussions? Thurlow left a strong message for world leaders in her speech at the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

    "All responsible leaders will sign this treaty. And history will judge harshly those who reject it.

    "To the officials of nuclear-armed nations -- and to their accomplices under the so-called 'nuclear umbrella' -- I say this: Listen to our testimony. Heed our warning. And know that your actions are consequential."


    Setsuko Thurlow was born in 1932 in Hiroshima. Aged 13 during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, she was just 1.8 kilometers from the blast's hypocenter. She lost her elder sister and other kin to the bomb. She went to the United States to study social welfare in 1954. After marrying, she moved to Canada. She has testified at the United Nations and other organizations about the atomic bombing, and continues to speak online amid the coronavirus pandemic and send letters to heads of state urging them to join the TPNW.

    (Japanese original by Isamu Gari, Hiroshima Bureau)

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