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Nagasaki A-bomb survivor aims to restart nuclear disarmament movements via testimonials

Masao Tomonaga is seen during talks with a Nagasaki University professor at an assembly to launch the Nagasaki citizens' association for the promotion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, in the city of Nagasaki on May 28, 2022. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

NAGASAKI -- "I'd like to let the testimonials of atomic bomb survivors be heard globally to reboot movements toward nuclear disarmament," Masao Tomonaga, a 79-year-old doctor and survivor of the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bombing, told an assembly here on May 28.

    He was addressing a meeting to launch a Nagasaki citizens' association for the promotion of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The association comprises four A-bomb survivors' groups in Nagasaki, and Tomonaga heads one of them, the Nagasaki Prefecture Hibakusha Health Handbook Holders' Association. He is calling on the international community to join the treaty and will take part in the first meeting of states parties to the treaty set to open on June 21 in Vienna as an observer from a nongovernmental organization.

    On March 2, Tomonaga, a resident of Nagasaki, held online talks with Yuri Fomichov, mayor of Slavutych in northern Ukraine, after Russia began its invasion of the country. Slavutych is located about 50 kilometers from the disaster-hit Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The mayor told Tomonaga over the computer screen that the area was effectively besieged by Russian forces and people would not be able to evacuate in a worst-case scenario.

    Tomonaga encouraged the mayor saying, "Nagasaki and A-bomb survivors will continue to support Ukraine." The mayor was subsequently abducted by Russian troops. When he was later released, Tomonaga was relieved to hear the news, but was terrified and angered to learn that the Russian military would do whatever it takes.

    As a hematologist, Tomonaga has provided medical care to A-bomb survivors in Nagasaki. In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, he visited affected areas to support victims. He was involved in the collection of information on radiation damage and distribution of nutritional supplements to local children.

    Masao Tomonaga speaks during an assembly to launch the Nagasaki citizens' association for the promotion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, in the city of Nagasaki on May 28, 2022. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

    Since February, Russia has been invading Ukraine, threatening the use of nuclear arms -- the very weaponry that was on the verge of killing Tomonaga 77 years ago. Russia also assaulted nuclear power plants in operation in Ukraine. "I feel as if I'm having a nightmare," Tomonaga told a draft committee for the Nagasaki peace declaration as he attended its meeting as a committee member on May 7.

    When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945, Tomonaga, then 2 years old, was resting on the second floor of a clinic run by his grandfather Yuzo, about 2.7 kilometers from the hypocenter, due to a high fever from tonsillitis.

    The clinic was destroyed by the blast, and Tomonaga got stuck between beams, but futon cushioned the impact and he was rescued by his mother Michi. Just the day before, at around 11 a.m., Tomonaga was seeing a doctor at the then Nagasaki Medical University Hospital, a mere 700 meters from the hypocenter, where many patients and doctors would be killed in the atomic bombing the following morning.

    "If I was there one day later, I would have been no more," Tomonaga said. This is the origin of his anger toward nuclear weapons.

    -- Can the world create a scenario of zero nuclear weapons?

    On top of his medical profession attending to A-bomb survivors, Tomonaga also served as deputy chairman of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, speaking out about the inhuman nature of nuclear weapons. Yet the world still embraces about 13,000 nuclear warheads today.

    At home, the Japanese government has yet to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on the grounds that Japan relies on the United States' nuclear umbrella. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other figures have insisted that Japan should discuss "nuclear-sharing" arrangements to allow U.S. nuclear weapons to be deployed on Japanese soil.

    "What scares me most is that members of the public no longer hesitate over discussions that could lead to the possession of nuclear weapons. Japan is inching toward nuclear weapons possession," Tomonaga warned.

    That being said, the nuclear weapons ban treaty, which finally came into being in 2017, provides a ray of hope. While the Japanese government and nuclear powers have turned their back on the pact, Tomonaga finds that public opinion at grass-roots level is leaning toward espousing the treaty, as evident in the California State Legislature expressing its support for the agreement.

    "What we hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) ought to do is to gradually change the direction of international opinion to where it can look to 'a world without nuclear weapons.' I will keep watching whether the world can create a scenario of eliminating nuclear weapons in 10 to 20 years by enticing nuclear-weapon states into the treaty," Tomonaga said.

    At the upcoming first meeting of states parties to the nuclear weapons ban treaty, a proposal for assisting nuclear weapons victims will be submitted. Tomonaga was involved in drafting the proposal as an expert on damage wrought by nuclear weaponry. With his resolve in mind, Tomonaga will fly to Vienna on June 17 to attend the conference.

    (Japanese original by Atsuki Nakayama and Hiroyuki Takahashi, Nagasaki Bureau)

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