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Hibakusha: Joining hands to protest nuclear weapons as time takes its toll

Koichi Kawano describes his desire to see nuclear weapons abolished, in Nagasaki on April 28, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takahashi)

NAGASAKI -- Koichi Kawano, chairman of the Hibakusha Liaison Council of the Nagasaki Prefectural Peace Movement Center, was visiting a group representing hibakusha, or A-bomb survivors, in southwestern Japan's Kyushu area, when a stack of pamphlets and other material on a desk caught his eye. The material was supposed to have been delivered to members, but it had been returned as the members had already died or could not receive it for one reason or another.

    "This is the reality," the head of the group murmured.

    In Nagasaki, too, aging has taken a toll on hibakusha groups, with the Nagasaki Prefecture A-bomb Health Handbook Friendship Society disbanding at the end of March due to the advanced years of its members, among other reasons. The society had had an official membership of about 1,000 and had served as one of the five main hibakusha groups in Nagasaki alongside Kawano's liaison council. Leaders of other organizations have passed away in succession, too, including Sumiteru Taniguchi, who was chairman of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council before his death in 2017 at the age of 88.

    Before he knew it, Kawano, now aged 82, had become the oldest incumbent leader among the four remaining hibakusha organizations.

    Koichi Kawano takes part in a sit-in to protest subcritical nuclear tests conducted by the United States, in Nagasaki on April 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takahashi)

    In 2009, Kawano became chairman of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, a national organization involved in the anti-nuclear peace movement, and he is currently joint chairman of the group. About five years ago he underwent surgery for esophageal cancer, and he is being treated for diabetes. He thinks about how he can live out his life while coping with his illnesses, but he remains uneasy, saying, "In four or five years, I don't know what will become of me or the hibakusha groups."

    Even so, he musters his strength and takes part in anti-nuclear sit-ins organized by the Nagasaki Prefecture branch of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs on the 9th of every month to mark the Aug. 9, 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and speaks to participants with a microphone.

    In a separate sit-in on April 15, Kawano protested two subcritical nuclear tests conducted by the United States in 2021. "You too, Biden?" he said. He also expressed anger toward Russian President Vladimir Putin for hinting that Russia could use nuclear weapons in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. "What's he thinking?" Kawano asked.

    Kawano was exposed to the Nagasaki atomic bombing at age 5, while playing with friends about 3.1 kilometers from the hypocenter in the city's Yahatamachi district. He was flung over 10 meters by the blast wave, and his memories of what happened were wiped away.

    Koichi Kawano criticizes nuclear powers the United States and Russia at a sit-in to protest a U.S. subcritical nuclear test, at Nagasaki's Peace Park on April 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takahashi)

    When he returned to his house after the war, he found a broken bucket in the alcove. In it were the charred bones of a doting elderly female relative, who lived in the city's Urakami area. When she was alive, she had told him, "The city is dangerous, so come to Urakami." Kawano feels that if he had followed her advice he wouldn't be alive today. Yet at the same time, he was only 500 meters away from the area near Tokiwa Bridge where the U.S. military had intended to drop the bomb, and he thinks, "If it had been dropped over the original target I would have died, too."

    The Nagasaki committee on the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, which was founded by bodies including the four hibakusha groups in Nagasaki, held a meeting on May 28, where Kawano expressed his determination. "Hibakusha don't have that much power left. We've got to continue our movements together with various peace organizations and citizens," he said.

    Concerned about his health, Kawano will not go to Vienna to attend the meeting of State Parties to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in June 2022, but he is sure his thoughts will reach the gathering.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Takahashi, Nagasaki Bureau)

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