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A-bomb survivor resolved to talk with kids about hope and peace, not just dark sides of war

Takeshi Yamakawa speaks about passing down his experiences as an atomic bombing survivor in the city of Nagasaki on May 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Kentaro Nagaoka)

NAGASAKI -- Takeshi Yamakawa, an 85-year-old man who was exposed to the atomic bombing in Nagasaki as a young child, spreads out the newspaper and flips to the obituary section every morning at 5 a.m.

    After keeping count of the number of people who passed at an age older than him, as well as those who were younger, he found that his own age was somewhere in the middle. "I'm at a stage where I could pass away at any moment."

    This realization is what makes him determined all the more to convey his thoughts to the younger generation.

    "In the end, public opinion is what any politician cares about the most. To create peace, each and every citizen must continue to speak up." So said Yamakawa, as he raised his voice to address around 150 students during a peace lecture at Nagasaki University on April 20.

    The sounds of air raid sirens heard through TV screens showing the destruction in Ukraine have reminded him of a time when he was 8 years old and trembling inside a pitch-dark bomb shelter. He said, "I can't believe that such a situation is still happening now 77 years later."

    In his lectures, Yamakawa says, "I want to spread messages of hope as part of peace education moving forward." This wish comes from a place of self-reflection, as he believes that his own lessons on peace during his 36 years as an elementary school teacher were gloomy. "Is it alright to finish the talk after leaving the children in despair? I believe it's necessary to present hope and the message that 'the human race is not that foolish.'"

    In 2018, the A-bomb survivor underwent surgery to place a pacemaker in his chest. Since 2020, following the coronavirus outbreak, lectures for students on school trips to the area have been canceled altogether. Yamakawa's calendar book, which had previously been packed with plans for over 90 lectures per year, began to see blank spaces or red lines crossing out schedules.

    Takeshi Yamakawa is seen during a sit-in before the Peace Statue in the city of Nagasaki on May 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Kentaro Nagaoka)

    At the Nagasaki University lecture in April, which was the first one he held in a while, he was able to speak about his experiences while standing for the whole 90 minutes, and this boosted his confidence.

    However, there were times after this when Yamakawa lost consciousness in the bathroom of his home, or had to sit down on a bus stop bench after feeling pain in his chest.

    After the lectures, Yamakawa is always invited by the organizers to attend as a speaker the following year, but answers seriously each time, "If I'm alive then."

    He has decided that he will accept the offers only if he is able to walk to the venue on his own.

    Although Yamakawa feels he is at his final stage of life, he is not worried about a future without "hibakusha" A-bomb survivors. "It's only natural that there will no longer be A-bomb survivors. A vast collection of records, statements, scientific material, and footage remains. I believe that a new way to convey memories of the atomic bombing will be created by making even greater use of such material."

    Yamakawa's 18-year-old granddaughter Mina entered Nagasaki University's Faculty of Environmental Science this April. He smiled and said, "I'm happy she chose a department that is directly linked with peace and the heavy issues humanity faces in a broad sense."

    He continued, "Just because you didn't experience it firsthand doesn't mean you can't talk about the atomic bombing. I'd like for the second- and third-generation hibakusha, who have watched the survivors near them and have faced similar oppression and discrimination, to fulfill their roles as successors."

    (Japanese original by Kentaro Nagaoka, Nagasaki Bureau)

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