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Hibakusha: After anti-nuke stalwart Tsuboi's death, torch passes to next generation

In this Nov. 2, 2009 file photo, Sunao Tsuboi talks about nuclear weapons at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the city of Hiroshima. (Mainichi/Yusuke Komatsu)

HIROSHIMA -- It is Dec. 22, and some 400 people are at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum here to bid farewell to Sunao Tsuboi, former chairman of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations (Hiroshima Hidankyo) and a tireless advocate for nuclear disarmament, who died in October at age 96.

    On the event program are words written by the man himself in inky black brushstrokes: "Futo Fukutsu Never Give Up!" while a photo of Tsuboi smiles at the gathering.

    Among the 400 attendees is 90-year-old Masanori Ueda, Hiroshima Hidankyo's deputy head and Tsuboi's partner in anti-nuclear activism for over 20 years.

    "We will continue this struggle for as long as we draw breath," Ueda told the guests. "We will do our absolute best for the sake of world peace."

    But as he was leaving the event, he sounded a more somber note: "Since Mr. Tsuboi left us, we've lost some of our drive."

    Masanori Ueda gives a speech at the Dec. 22, 2021 farewell gathering for the late Sunao Tsuboi, in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. (Mainichi/Tadashi Kako)

    The loss of Hiroshima Hidankyo's leading light has been an enormous blow, while concerns about the rising age of the organization's membership is also taking a real toll. Nevertheless, Ueda and the Hiroshima hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) are looking ahead, powered by Tsuboi's words: "We must keep pressing our claims until we die. Even if there is just one more person who believes, we can move the world."

    Tsuboi was someone who lived the words, "Never give up." He was 20 when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. He was just 1.2 kilometers or so south of the hypocenter. After World War II, he became a public junior high school teacher in Hiroshima Prefecture, and told his students about his A-bomb experiences.

    He became the heart of Hiroshima Hidankyo after retiring from teaching, and in May 2016 met with then U.S. President Barack Obama, the first sitting U.S. head of state to visit Hiroshima. Tsuboi also made his case for nuclear disarmament in several installments of the Mainichi Shimbun's "Hibakusha" feature series.

    "We talked of experiences transcending life and death, and of the pain of living," Ueda said of his time with Tsuboi.

    Ueda, too, was 1.2 kilometers from the atomic explosion's hypocenter, but to the west. He was at an armaments plant in what is now Hiroshima's Nishi Ward. He fled covered in blood, shards of glass piercing his head in seven places.

    Tsuboi was out in the street when the bomb went off, the flash and the heat pulse burning his entire body. He was unconscious for some 40 days.

    Ueda deeply respected Tsuboi. "Where did that power to stand up and keep on fighting come from? I wanted to understand that fundamental part of him," Ueda said of his late friend, lamenting that he could never be like Tsuboi.

    Ueda had a kidney removed after being diagnosed with cancer, and goes to the hospital every day. But Tsuboi told him, "Whether we get sick or old, the job of abolishing atomic weapons doesn't go away." Looking at Tsuboi's smiling face, Ueda replied, "I'll do my best for as long as I live."

    Punk rocker and anti-nuclear arms activist Shinji Okoda shows a collection of his interviews with the late Sunao Tsuboi, on Dec. 7, 2021 in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. (Mainichi/Kenji Ikai)

    Meanwhile, the movement is spreading among younger generations. Fifty-six-year-old punk band vocalist Shinji Okoda, who had been interviewing Tsuboi every summer since 2007, will put on a memorial exhibition in January 2022. "We can't wait for the 'post-Tsuboi' hibakusha at this point. Are we going to just leave everything to other people again?" Okoda said.

    There are many anti-war punk rock songs, and Okoda had a strong interest in the anti-nuclear arms movement. When he met Tsuboi, Okoda began thinking seriously about "what we can do to really reduce the number of atomic weapons."

    "Even if we who didn't actually experience the bombing have little strength, we must come together and fight even harder than Mr. Tsuboi ever did," Okoda told the Mainichi. He added that he feels that "Tsuboi's activism probably got rid of at least a few warheads." He continued, "I want to be able to say one warhead was eliminated in my lifetime. I will pass on Mr. Tsuboi's way of life, and spread anti-nuclear consciousness among young people."

    And so, a new generation is nudged forward by Tsuboi's call to "never give up," and those that stand up will share the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.

    (Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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