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A-bomb orphan who lived through two wars returns home to Hiroshima in search of roots

Tsunehiro Tomoda visits Fukuromachi Elementary School, called Fukuromachi National School at the time of the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in the city's Naka Ward on Nov. 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- Tsunehiro Tomoda was orphaned at age 9 by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and several years later, saw a war unfold right before his eyes on the Korean Peninsula. The 87-year-old, his harrowing experiences of two wars alive in his memory, is now settled in Osaka, Japan. In November, the Mainichi Shimbun accompanied him on a trip to Hiroshima, as he traveled back to his hometown filled with childhood recollections in search of someone very close to his heart.

    Flashbacks of lost schoolmates and family

    It was a bit past 8 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Tomoda, a fourth grader at the time, was tardy for a morning assembly. In front of Fukuromachi National School, now Fukuromachi Elementary School in Hiroshima's Naka Ward, he shook off an older student who tugged him, asking, "Why are you late?" Just as he was about to take off his shoes in the basement room where the shoe racks were, the A-bomb fell on Hiroshima. The school was about 460 meters from the hypocenter. "After hearing a loud crash, my body hit a pillar in this hallway and I lost consciousness," Tomoda recalled during a recent visit to the school.

    A-bomb survivor Tsunehiro Tomoda, right, searches for his grandmother's grave with a supporter in Hiroshima's Higashi Ward on Nov. 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    When he went out into the schoolyard, the around 150 students and teachers who had been lining up for the morning assembly had been reduced to charred corpses. Nearby, a pair of sneakers rolled across the ground, labeled clearly with the surname of their owner: Tomoda. They belonged to his brother, who was one year younger.

    The 87-year-old said, "If I hadn't shaken off that older student's hand when I did, I would've died." To this day, he has been unable to discover the fate of his mother, who is believed to have been at home at the time of the bombing.

    Fukuromachi National School's reinforced concrete west wing was damaged but not destroyed, and was turned into a shelter and first-aid station. Written messages with information on survivors soon covered the stairwell walls. Today, part of the building is preserved as a "Peace Museum" and is open to the public. With tears in his eyes, Tomoda said, "From the rooftops, my friends and I flew handmade gliders and played like this. Coming to school brings back memories."

    Tsunehiro Tomoda, left, is seen with his mother and brother in this family photo provided by Tomoda.

    This was Tomoda's second visit to Hiroshima this year. He says he is trying to find the grave of his kind grandmother, Tora Nishida. He began to visit Hiroshima in search of his roots after returning to his elementary school to talk about his A-bomb experience in autumn 2021. He found out that his father's grave no longer exists, and has been looking for the grave of his maternal grandmother, the relative with whom he felt closest.

    Experiencing another war alone in a foreign land

    After the end of World War II and the atomic bomb that had orphaned him, Tomoda set out for Korea with a Korean man who had been boarding with his family. However, he did not get along with the man's family, and he ran away at age 13. He was alone now, and in South Korea. He lived on the streets at a market in Seoul, and survived on whatever food he found. Tomoda recalled, "I'd drink so much river water to stanch my hunger that I made sloshing sounds when I walked." He endured winters with temperatures dipping as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. He said, "One day, the pinky and fourth toe on my right foot fell off from frostbite."

    The Korean War then broke out in 1950, and a young Tomoda witnessed the exchange of gunfire across the Han River, bullets flying right past him. "I was ready to die, and I think I was lucky to have survived." After the horrors of both World War II and the Korean War, he loathes war and yearns for peace more than anyone else.

    Tsunehiro Tomoda points at the Motoyasu River near Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and says he often enjoyed boating there with his mother, as seen in this photo taken in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on Nov. 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    During the Korean War, Tomoda had a mysterious experience. His mother appeared in a dream, called him by his nickname "Tsune-chan," and said, "I'll bring you home to Japan." From then on, his longing for home grew. He began working at a bakery when the Korean War ended in a cease-fire in 1953. He visited the city hall in Seoul and other bodies, seeking a trip back to Japan, but was turned away as he could not prove that he was a Japanese citizen.

    Just then, a Korean woman reached out to Tomoda, who had already forgotten Japanese and could not write it. Though her husband had been killed by the Japanese military, she helped make Tomoda's wish come true by sending out over 30 letters addressed to the Hiroshima Municipal Government and other recipients. The letter read, "Please send a copy of his family register immediately. His grandmother named Tora Nishida is in the Hiroshima town of Yaga (now Higashi Ward)."

    Upon learning from one of the Korean woman's letters that her grandson was alive, Nishida made every effort to arrange his return, including getting identification documents issued proving he was Japanese. "She also sent photos of herself and letters to South Korea saying she wanted to buy me shoes. She was a kind grandma," Tomoda said. He was finally able to return to Japan in June 1960. He was 24.

    A message to deliver to a loved one back home

    Tsunehiro Tomoda visits Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the city's Naka Ward on Nov. 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    "A river was flowing nearby. There was a large rock on a mountain, and beneath that was the grave," Tomoda recounted. After returning to Japan, he spent some time in Hiroshima before leaving to work at a gas station in Osaka, where he's lived ever since. Although he remembers visiting his grandmother's grave a couple of times after she passed away in 1963, the area has gone through great change, and he no longer knows where it is. But he is searching, focusing on the neighborhood where she lived, with the cooperation of various people.

    He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2019, and found himself hovering between life and death after his condition deteriorated this summer. According to a study by Nanao Kamada, doctor and professor emeritus of Hiroshima University, only four people who were within a 500-meter radius of the Hiroshima A-bomb's hypocenter remain alive today. As he is uncertain when he can visit Hiroshima again, due to age and health, Tomoda is restless to find his grandmother's resting place to tell her, "I'm sorry it took me this long to come here."

    (Japanese original by Makiko Nagao, Student Newspapers Editorial Department Osaka Resident Bureau)

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