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77 years on, Nagasaki A-bomb survivor starts sharing her story with young people overseas

Tadako Kawazoe speaks about her experiences following the Nagasaki atomic bombing, at the Nagasaki Prefecture peace movement center in the city of Nagasaki on July 14, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takahashi)

NAGASAKI -- A 78-year-old survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of this southwest Japan city, who was too young to remember the catastrophe at the time, shared her experiences in the aftermath of the bombing with people abroad for the first time this summer after years of shying away from talks on the subject.

    Tadako Kawazoe, 78, a resident of Nagasaki, was just 18 months old when the U.S. military dropped the atomic bomb on the city on Aug. 9, 1945. As she has no memory of the bombing, she previously had never thought about traveling abroad to share her story. In June this year, however, she joined a group of delegates from the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs (Gensuikin) to visit Vienna, where the first meeting of states parties to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was held.

    Kawazoe was in Nagasaki's Nishiyama district, about 2.5 kilometers east of the hypocenter, at the time of the bombing. The following day, she was carried on her mother's back as the family, including her aunt and grandfather, evacuated to the then village of Mie on the outskirts of Nagasaki.

    Years later, Kawazoe's mother and aunt recounted their memories of that time to her. As their evacuation route passed near the hypocenter, they came over a hill and saw what they described as "a black world" of burnt ruins. Later they recalled the "smell of the devastated land under the scorching sun where creatures were burned."

    In the bombing, Kawazoe's mother lost her mother, sister and two brothers who were living in Nagasaki's Shiroyamamachi district, just 600 meters from ground zero. Later, when her relatives got together every summer during the Bon holiday, they would talk about the atomic bombing, which Kawazoe detested as she had no recollection of that time. "How come they talk about such sad things?" she wondered.

    After graduating from university, she became an elementary school teacher in Nagasaki, and joined the establishment of the Nagasaki city atomic-bombed teachers' association in 1970 at age 26. By that time, there already were children unaware of the date of the Nagasaki atomic bombing. When she heard about this from a senior teacher, Kawazoe thought, "We can't pass down (memories of the bombing) to children unless we properly tell them what had happened."

    From that point, Kawazoe started talking about herself and her family's experiences, telling her audiences, "This is what I heard from my mother and aunt." She currently serves as deputy head of the Nagasaki chapter of Gensuikin, engaging in activities to pass down A-bomb survivors' memories.

    Tadako Kawazoe, right, speaks with a young man from Fiji, far left, and others during an event in Vienna organized by a nongovernmental organization on June 19, 2022, in this photo provided by the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs (Gensuikin).

    -- A turning point in Vienna

    Kawazoe's visit to Vienna this year became yet another turning point. At a June 19 event organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a young man from Fiji came up to her asking that she share her story. In the Pacific region, where the island nation of Fiji is located, the United States, Britain and France have repeatedly conducted nuclear tests since the 1950s. As there currently are few people who know about those tests firsthand, the young Fijian was wondering how he could pass down this knowledge to younger generations.

    "I think you've got to tell them about it," Kawazoe told him. "Even though we have no recollection (of those times), we have a job to pass down what our parents told us to the next generation."

    As of the end of March 2022, the average age of A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, stood at 84.53 years old. Kawazoe is adamant: "The time limit is looming for the generations that retain firm memories of their exposure to the bombing to be able to share their experiences. Even though we may not have memories of our own, it's our turn to take on that role."

    During her stay in Vienna, she found a ray of hope in the sight of young people from Japan and abroad passionately calling for nuclear weapons abolition. Observing those young people closely listening to her story, she was reminded that it was her mission to speak up about the atomic bombing even in the absence of her own memories.

    At the same time, participants from other countries lamented that Japan was not taking part in the first conference of the parties to the nuclear weapons ban treaty. Amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has repeatedly threatened to use atomic weapons. Kawazoe is focusing on the outcome of the monthlong review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commenced on Aug. 1 with the participation of nuclear powers. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose home turf is Hiroshima, attended and delivered a speech at the review conference for the first time as Japanese premier.

    Prior to the opening of the conference at the United Nations, Kawazoe commented, "If he speaks firmly in his own words, he can get his message across. I want him to demonstrate Japan's stance of seriously committing itself to nuclear weapons abolition by considering other countries' circumstances and how nuclear arms are regarded."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Takahashi, Nagasaki Bureau)

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