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Nagasaki pushes for residents' recognition as victims of A-bomb's 'black rain'

Katsuko Murata talks about her experience with "black rain" following the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bombing in the city of Nagasaki on July 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Takehiro Higuchi)

NAGASAKI -- "Before long, oil-like rain came pouring down and made black specks on my white shirt," a man from Nagasaki Prefecture's former village of Himi stated in response to a survey conducted decades ago on residents who experienced the 1945 atomic bombing.

    In the fiscal 1999 survey conducted by the city of Nagasaki and six towns, 129 of the 7,025 respondents claimed that they witnessed "rain" fall after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Through a freedom of information request to the Nagasaki Prefectural Government and the Nagasaki Municipal Government, the Mainichi Shimbun obtained survey sheets recording responses from the 129 people quizzed, which had remained undisclosed to the public for some 20 years. Details about the rain that fell in Nagasaki after the atomic bombing emerged from the statements.

    The survey targeted residents who were in areas that were within a 12-kilometer radius of the hypocenter at the time of the atomic bombing but are outside zones later recognized as eligible for receiving public assistance. Though the survey had no questions related to radioactive black rain, 129 people mentioned the rain, while 1,874 people made statements about ash falling in their areas, mainly on the east side of the assistance-covered zone. However, the Japanese government has not recognized that radioactive rain fell in Nagasaki.

    The descriptions found in the survey sheets are specific, as memories from 54 years ago were described vividly. A man from the former village of Yagami wrote, "After the sky that was bright in fine weather turned into something like a night sky with a hazy moon, black rain began to fall," while a female resident of the same village stated, "The red sun and sky turned blackish, and black rain fell as cinders, paper scraps, and other things came flying." There were many common aspects in the respondents' statements, including the description that the sky suddenly clouded over before the rain.

    In response to the survey results, in 2002, the national government launched a system to aid individuals who are not officially recognized as A-bomb survivors by offering financial assistance for health care, limited to certain diseases such as mental disorders. The system was established on the premise that the poor health of residents outside zones eligible for assistance as certified A-bomb survivors was caused by anxiety due to their atomic bombing experience. However, residents continue to argue that they were subjected to internal exposure to radiation by radioactive substances that fell from the sky.

    The survey results drew attention again in July 2021 following a Hiroshima High Court ruling that recognized 84 Hiroshima Prefecture residents, who were exposed to black rain outside the zone the government recognized as eligible for assistance, as A-bomb survivors. The Japanese government decided not to appeal, and then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed the intention to offer relief to "people in similar circumstances" as the plaintiffs. The Nagasaki Prefectural Government and Nagasaki Municipal Government demanded that relief measures be provided for Nagasaki's residents who were exposed to radiation outside the designated zone as well, and insisted that black rain also fell in Nagasaki in discussions with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in November and December that year.

    However, the health ministry brushed aside their argument, saying, "The survey statements were responses by the concerned individuals. It is difficult to consider them as material confirming that radioactive rain fell." In December, relief measures were shelved in Nagasaki.

    Those who were exposed to radioactive rain in Nagasaki 77 years ago clearly remember their experience. Katsuko Murata, 80, who was in the former village of Himi, which is now part of the city of Nagasaki and was located some eight kilometers east of the hypocenter, remembers that after a blast from the atomic bomb, the sky in the direction of Nagasaki turned red like a sunset as rain fell from black clouds overhead. She said she rushed inside an air-raid shelter dripping wet.

    Rain and ash also fell in the former village of Toishi, about three kilometers east of the former village of Himi. Chieko Yamaguchi, 84, saw ash and rain fall from the sky, which went dark as strong gusts of wind blew after a flash of light. She drank water from a well that contained ash, and ate vegetables which were covered in ash after washing them with the dirty water. Eventually, her scalp covered with ash became damaged, and her hair fell out. After this, Yamaguchi suffered from headaches, nose bleeds, and other symptoms. She said, "Even though we've experienced the rain and ash, it's wrong that the national government is saying there's no evidence."

    Meanwhile, there is still hope. In February this year, the Nagasaki Prefectural Government set up an expert panel including Yasuhito Igarashi, professor at Kyoto University's Institute for Integrated Radiation and Nuclear Science, and examined the fiscal 1999 survey statements. The panel concluded that because there was a statistically significant difference in the proportion of people who experienced rain between different areas, it can at least be said that "radioactive substances were dispersed in areas where witness statements regarding rain, ash, and other fallen objects were obtained."

    Nagasaki Prefecture and the city of Nagasaki submitted the expert panel's report to the health ministry this July, and demanded again that individuals who were outside assistance-eligible zones be certified as A-bomb survivors.

    (Japanese original by Takehiro Higuchi and Hiroyuki Takahashi, Nagasaki Bureau)

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