Revised law may bring more support for A-bomb survivors overseas

by Masami Nishimoto, Senior Staff Writer

The revised Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, which will enable A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) to apply for benefits, including the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate, at Japanese embassies and consulates abroad, comes into effect on December 17. A-bomb survivors residing outside Japan have long been isolated in the countries where they live, since the reality of the atomic bombings has been poorly recognized elsewhere. The new law now raises the question of whether this legislation can lead to hibakusha abroad obtaining the same level of treatment as hibakusha in Japan. To consider this question, in October I visited South Korea, home to an estimated 2,600 A-bomb survivors and the nation with the largest population of hibakusha outside Japan. I wanted to explore the current circumstances and future prospects of the survivors there. In this article, I review the state of relief measures for hibakusha overseas, measures that have emerged as a result of appeals from the survivors themselves. These appeals have a close connection to Japanese colonial rule, which lasted from 1910-1945, and the Japanese government’s policy of compensation in the post-war period.

Barriers still remain in the application procedure

“If the filing procedure can be carried out in Seoul and Pusan, elderly survivors will find this far easier and the number of applications will surely increase,” began Shin Dong-In, 56, director general of the Special Welfare Service of the Korean Red Cross Center, when I visited him at his office.

The Special Welfare Service is in charge of medical assistance for hibakusha and received funding, from a “humanitarian standpoint,” from the Japanese government in 1991 and 1993, totaling 4 billion yen. With these contributions, the A-bomb Sufferers Welfare Center, with a capacity of 80 people, was built in Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, dubbed the “Hiroshima of South Korea.” However, constructing this center and maintaining its operations have depleted these funds and so assistance to hibakusha has been sustained, if very shakily, with subsidies from the South Korean government. Through June 2008, the subsidies have totaled a sum equal to the Japanese contributions.

A-bomb survivors registered with the Korean Red Cross are entitled to receive medical treatment, without the burden of paying a portion of fees, at 22 designated hospitals. They are also provided with a “medical allowance” of 100,000 won (about 8,000 yen) for additional living support.

The applications of 189 are denied

By the end of September 2008, the number of registered hibakusha in South Korea is 2,663 and their average age is 72.6. Roughly 95% were in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing. Among those registered, 2,459 hold the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate after visiting Japan and 2,441 of these receive the Health Management Allowance of 33,800 yen a month and other benefits. In addition, 15 hold the Atomic Bomb Certificate of Acknowledgement, a document given to hibakusha who were not able to visit Japan due to illness or other reasons. However, 189 people who have registered with the Korean Red Cross have not been officially recognized as A-bomb survivors by the Japanese government.

“Demanding that people prove they suffered the atomic bombing some 60 years ago in Japan, a foreign land for them, is just heartless. How could they possibly find witnesses?” Kwak Kwi Hoon, 84, honorary president of the South Korean Atomic Bomb Sufferers Association and one of its founders, expressed his resentment in Japanese. Mr. Kwak was caught in the bombing near Hiroshima Castle as a member of the first unit of conscripted soldiers from the Korean Peninsula. In 1998 he filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government and other institutions, winning entitlement to the Health Management Allowance for himself and other A-bomb survivors living abroad. At the trial, though, the Japanese government’s statement sharply revealed to him its flawed understanding of history.

Korean A-bomb survivors had come to Japan as immigrants or as conscripted laborers and soldiers under colonial rule. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they then encountered the atomic bombings. Though many returned to their homeland after its liberation from colonial rule, they again suffered through the Korean War. As the Japanese government established relief measures for A-bomb survivors in Japan, the Korean hibakusha were ignored when it came to this same support. Thus, these A-bomb survivors in South Korea were forced to endure enormous pain from their ordeals.

Mr. Kwak still has the military handbook issued by the Japanese Army to its soldiers as well as keloids on his upper body as a result of burns he received in the blast. After the bombing, while working as a teacher, he traveled regularly between Japan and South Korea to aid in relief efforts for other Koreans. For even Mr. Kwak, though, it took 34 years for him to obtain the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate. The former Ministry of Health and Welfare would seldom accept applications for this document if the applicants were visiting Japan on tourist visas.

Even if survivors living overseas held an Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate, their right to receive benefits was denied once they left Japan, in line with “Directive No. 402” issued by the director general of the Public Health Department of the Ministry in 1974. This directive was created in 1974 after the Japanese government lost a suit in district court that was filed by Son Jin Doo over obtaining the certificate. Since that time, for hibakusha abroad, the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate became “just a piece of paper.”

“Whenever a court ruling goes against the Japanese government, it grudgingly provides a little more assistance to A-bomb survivors,” said Mr. Kwak. “Yet the judicial branch of the government has already acknowledged my contention that ‘Hibakusha are hibakusha, no matter where they live.’ So why doesn’t the government face its history squarely and try to settle its past?” Mr. Kwak went on to explain that many A-bomb survivors in Korea had difficulty maintaining a livelihood and so were unable to afford the costs of travel to Japan. Their hopes for obtaining the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate faded before they passed away.

As a reporter, I have visited cities in Korea, including Hapcheon, since the late 1980s to speak with A-bomb survivors. I am reminded of quite a few hibakusha who used Hiroshima dialect in our interviews yet didn’t have a certificate, or even if they had one, they died without receiving medical care.

There are survivors today who still cannot obtain this document. Some are unable to visit Japan due to health concerns, despite implementation of the “Assistance Program for A-bomb Survivors Overseas” in 2002. Others hold memories of the bombing that have become fuzzy from old age or they were children at the time so they can’t clearly remember their location when the blast occurred. As a result, after submitting their application materials to the Hiroshima city government for an initial review, these materials were simply returned to them.

Vast majority of returned applications from South Korea

The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Department, a division of the Hiroshima city government, returned a total of 412 applications between 2002 and September 2008. Among them, some 366 cases, nearly 90%, were submitted from South Korea. Since applicants are asked to complete the application forms in Japanese, the language burden confronting Koreans is heavier than for Japanese-Americans who were educated in Japan or Japanese-Brazilians who emigrated after the war.

As a result, the Korean Red Cross has also been concerned about the application procedure for A-bomb recognition. In April 2008, in the wake of successive defeats at several courts in Japan in regard to this procedure, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare relaxed the criteria for certification. The ministry, predicting 2,200 new certifications a year, a 12-fold increase compared to previous years, has responded by making a comparable budget request for the fiscal year 2009.

Among the A-bomb survivors living in South Korea, only 11 currently receive the Special Medical Allowance of 137,430 yen a month after being certified as suffering from an A-bomb-related disease. To obtain certification, enormous importance is placed on the written opinions of medical specialists in regard to whether or not the survivors’ illnesses, such as cancer, can be attributed to radiation from the atomic bomb. The 11 hibakusha receiving the Special Medical Allowance had visited Japan, despite their illnesses, to undergo examinations at medical institutions in Japan.

In South Korea, where there has been little awareness of the plight of A-bomb survivors, difficulty in finding medical specialists who can write opinion papers on behalf of these hibakusha is predicted.

No request from the Japanese government

Mr. Shin of the Korean Red Cross commented, “Though we don’t have doctors with experience of writing these opinion papers, we do have advanced medical facilities. The Korean Red Cross has five hospitals and we will assist A-bomb survivors in their applications for certification.” He then added a caveat, pointing out that “Such a system, with applicants undergoing examinations at hospitals designated by the Korean Red Cross, would be straightforward to implement if we receive a formal request in this regard from the Japanese government.” But, Mr. Shin says, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has not provided any information on this matter nor made contact with the appropriate authorities in South Korea.

In September, Shizuteru Usui, president of the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association, which has been conducting medical checkups for A-bomb survivors living in North and South America, visited North Korea, home to some 382 hibakusha. As Japan and North Korea have not formed diplomatic relations, these survivors have been unable to obtain assistance from Japan. The purpose of Mr. Usui’s visit, then, was to explore the possibility of holding checkups for hibakusha in North Korea. “If we reflect on history,” said Mr. Usui, explaining the belief behind his efforts, “it’s clear that we should advocate for assisting A-bomb survivors everywhere, and particularly those on the Korean Peninsula.”

The case of Son Jin Doo resulted in a decision by the Supreme Court in 1978 that affirmed Japan’s responsibility for providing relief measures, stating “The Atomic Bomb Medical Law was enacted to execute the central government’s responsibility for assisting A-bomb survivors suffering from damages wrought by the atomic bombing, a special form of war damages.” However, even after this ruling, the government has continued to drag its feet, as Mr. Kwak has experienced, offering only small steps of assistance.

The new Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Relief Law will enable “on-site assessments” in which interviews concerning applications for the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate can be conducted where the applicants reside. On those occasions, the applicants should not be forced to prove their experience of the atomic bombing. Instead, showing respect for their statements, Japan should sincerely consider the likelihood of their suffering and accept its responsibility for providing relief.

Further, the Japanese government is urged to disseminate information fully in all associated countries and coordinate with their medical institutions, including the Korean Red Cross, so that applications for A-bomb certification will be efficiently carried out. In North Korea, too, relief measures to assist the hibakusha living there should also be initiated. In order to realize these objectives, an official of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has stated that “consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is needed.”

Currently, medical care for survivors abroad is constrained by a ceiling of 145,000 yen annually under the “Health and Medical Assistance Program for the Overseas A-bomb Survivors.” To provide these hibakusha abroad with the same benefits as the A-bomb survivors in Japan, “necessary measures” should be taken, as is stipulated in the additional clause to the revised law.

A total of 4,330 people in 35 foreign countries hold the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate, though some of them may have passed away without the knowledge of authorities. Universal assistance that any hibakusha can receive, “no matter where they live,” is essential for new applicants who take advantage of application procedures abroad.

(Originally published on October 26, 2008)

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Lawsuit against the Japanese government filed by A-bomb survivors in the U.S. and Brazil (Oct. 9, 2008)
Dissatisfaction with government’s stance in regard to compensation for A-bomb survivors abroad (Aug. 28, 2008)
Revised law enables A-bomb survivors abroad to apply for official recognition from outside Japan (June 20, 2008)