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Sister of in-utero A-bomb survivor shares story and urges world to abolish nuclear weapons

Shinichi Nakai, left, and his younger sister Yoko are seen smiling during an interview in Yokohama on July 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

"If I could start over, I would not ask for much. I would ask only that my brother get a chance to live in a world with no atomic bombs, no nuclear weapons -- a world without war."

    These were the words Yoko Nakai, 71, wrote in a letter addressed to the attendees of the first meeting of state parties to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which took place in Vienna in June.

    Yoko wants her 76-year-old brother Shinichi to live the life he has chosen for himself, rather than one predestined by his exposure to radiation in his mother's womb. She currently lives in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, with Shinichi, who has microcephaly and suffered severe disabilities to his brain and body due to exposure to radiation from the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945.

    As Shinichi has an intellectual disability caused by microcephaly, he is unable to connect phrases when speaking, and cannot read letters or numbers. His favorite activities are going to the welfare facility, embroidery, and watching period dramas on TV. He is usually calm, but he became more talkative when asked what he was embroidering. "Red, blue, yellow. Boom. They show them on TV," he said. Then Yoko nodded cheerfully and said, "They're fireworks, right, Shin-chan?"

    At the time of the atomic bombing, Yoko's parents and two older sisters were at their home in the city of Hiroshima, which was located some 700 meters from the hypocenter. Her mother, who was pregnant with Shinichi, had shards of glass stuck throughout her body. Both her parents suffered radiation-related health damage, including losing teeth and vomiting blood. Soon after the atomic bombing, the family evacuated to the Hyogo Prefecture city of Himeji, where her mother's family home was located. However, the eldest girl in the family, aged 5 at the time, died about one month later from illness caused by A-bomb radiation.

    Shinichi was born in January 1946. When he was 1-year-old, a harmful tumor was found in the depths of his right eye, resulting in its removal. He could not keep up with elementary school classes, and due to bullying he became unable to attend school after three months. His parents took him out in public less often, and the family moved to Yokohama for the father's work.

    Yoko said that she had always imagined she would eventually take care of Shinichi. Though there were arrangements for her to get married when she was in her 20s, her partner left after learning about her brother. She said, "It was painful, but I think it was a burden for the partner. Whether I get married or not, it's my life. I can live positively while supporting my brother."

    It was 1989 that Shinichi was officially recognized as having A-bomb microcephaly. The Kanagawa Prefectural Government had sent her father a notice regarding benefits to A-bomb survivors, and in a corner of that notice the Japanese characters for "microcephaly," indicating "small head," caught her eye. Shinichi has such a small head circumference that small-sized hats are too big for him. Suspecting that her brother could have this condition, Yoko made an inquiry with the prefectural government, which led to his diagnosis following a medical examination and intelligence test.

    Learning of his son's condition, Yoko's father murmured, "So it was this after all." Yoko said she also made a prayer to her mother, who had already passed away, to tell her that "it was the atomic bomb's fault." Thinking of her mother in heaven, Yoko said, "It's not like anything would've changed by knowing this, but I think she would have felt differently. My mother must have had a hard time too."

    As of late March 2022, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare recognized 14 A-bomb microcephaly cases nationwide, including Shinichi's case. In 2019, Shinichi joined the Hiroshima-based Kinoko-kai group, consisting of patients with A-bomb microcephaly.

    Yoko's letter containing her thoughts about Shinichi was published in the group's pamphlet created for attendees of the first meeting of state parties. She placed hope in the review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, saying, "I'd like them to start from efforts to get rid of even one or two nuclear weapons." During the June conference in Vienna, Yoko was encouraged by young people's moves aiming for abolishment of nuclear weapons. "Even with us gone, there are people who will carry on our wish for peace. I was able to think that the life led by my brother was not in vain."

    (Japanese original by Hiroko Tanaka, Hiroshima Bureau)

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