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Nagasaki hibakusha learned English at age 90 to talk about A-bomb horror

Shohei Tsuiki speaks about his activities as the oldest member of a Nagasaki-based citizens' group passing down experiences of "hibakusha" A-bomb survivors, as seen in this photo taken in the city in January 2023. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Takahashi)

NAGASAKI -- "The hibakusha of my generation have all passed away, and I'm the only one that is still active in my old age." These were the words of 95-year-old A-bomb survivor Shohei Tsuiki, which appeared in a December 2022 newsletter of a Nagasaki citizens' group that passes down the memories of hibakusha who survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.

    Many of the group's members have already died, including Mitsugi Moriguchi, who passed at age 86 in December after supporting the group's activities of recording A-bomb memories as its executive director for 19 years. While this disheartened Tsuiki -- the oldest member of the group -- he continues to document the stories of the atomic bombing and speak about his experiences, even before an English-speaking audience, on behalf of fellow hibakusha.

    The Nagasaki group was originally formed by university professors, A-bomb survivors, and others who were investigating the health and lives of A-bomb survivors. It collected the testimonies of people who experienced the atomic bombing, and from 1969, issued newsletters once to four times a year. The group played a central role in recording memories of the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and contributed to nuclear disarmament movements both in and outside Japan.

    Although the group has around 170 members, including survivors and residents, there are hardly any individuals who can speak about their experiences like Tsuiki, who was 18 years old at the time of the bombing -- old enough to be left with a vivid memory lasting to this day.

    When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Tsuiki, a second-year student at a training school for future teachers, was sleeping in a dorm located approximately 1.8 kilometers from the hypocenter. He was resting after finishing his tunnel digging night shift, as he was mobilized during the war. He woke up to the noise of buildings collapsing and crawled out from pitch darkness. He suffered severe burns to his left arm and left leg, and was covered in blood with glass shards stuck in his body.

    The burns were so painful he felt he "would rather die," and scars still remain on him. His hair fell out, and he became delirious with fever. He also experienced a loss of appetite and diarrhea. As he witnessed the deaths of A-bomb survivors around him, he feared he might be next.

    Fortunately, he recovered, and two years after the atomic bombing, he became a middle school math teacher. However, he never brought up the topic of the A-bomb. A turning point came when the movement against atomic and hydrogen bombs peaked in the 1950s. Antinuclear sentiments heightened after the 1954 Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, where 23 crew members of a Japanese tuna fishing boat were exposed to radioactive fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test, with one member dying around half a year later. As the movement spread, Tsuiki also felt a strong urge to speak out, and in 1970, at age 43, he took part in establishing groups for hibakusha teachers in Nagasaki Prefecture and the city of Nagasaki. He also joined the Nagasaki citizens' group recording hibakusha testimonies in 1974.

    His comrades who passed away in succession were leading figures in Japan's anti-nuclear movement. Senji Yamaguchi, who passed at age 82 in 2013, called for "no more hibakusha" in a speech at a 1982 United Nations special session on disarmament, while holding up a photo of himself showing his keloid scars. Sumiteru Taniguchi, who passed away in 2017 at age 88, urged the world to abolish nuclear weapons at the U.N. headquarters in 2010 while holding a photo of his young self with severe burns on his back. Tsukasa Uchida, who lost five family members as his home was in close proximity to the hypocenter, served as a head representative of the Nagasaki group before he passed away in 2020 at 90 years old.

    Tsuiki continues to give testimonies on the atomic bombing once or twice a month. The 95-year-old even started to learn English at age 90, and on Feb. 18, spoke about his experiences to students of the University of Hawaii who visited Nagasaki. As more survivors are passing away, living testimonies carry increasing weight.

    In late January, he was appointed head representative of the group, along with two other members. He accepted the offer as he wishes to "live as long as possible and keep passing down these experiences." Tsuiki has no marked issues with his health, but he uses a cane due to weakened leg and hip muscles. In the face of old age, he continues to convey his experiences, which are engraved into history.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Takahashi, Nagasaki Bureau)

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