Hiroshima Memo: Efforts desired from A-bomb survivors on many fronts

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Under the U.S. occupation of post-war Japan, the horrific reality of the damage wrought by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the effects of radiation exposure on the human body, was scarcely reported in Japan, where a press code was instituted by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ). Many A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) who had lost family members and been injured themselves lived in isolation on the margins of society without any support from the government or ties to other hibakusha.

In March 1954, a hydrogen bomb test was conducted by the United States at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean. The 23 crew members of the "Daigo Fukuryu Maru" (The Lucky Dragon No. 5), a Japanese tuna fishing boat exposed to a large quantity of "radioactive fallout" produced by the test, and their catch of tuna that was contaminated by radiation and had to be disposed of by burying the fish in the ground, made the Japanese people realize anew the horror of nuclear weapons. The Bikini incident led to a vigorous campaign against atomic and hydrogen bombs. In August 1955, the following year, the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was held in the A-bombed city of Hiroshima for the first time.

The declaration of the first World Conference noted that providing relief for the A-bomb survivors was the foundation of any movement against atomic and hydrogen bombs. It is said that a woman who spoke at the conference, an A-bomb survivor of Hiroshima, was touched by the warm hearts of thousands of participants who recognized the grief and suffering she had endured for the past ten years, and told them that she was happy to be alive.

As if encouraged by the growing movement against atomic and hydrogen bombs, hibakusha, who had tended to be isolated, came together, and organizations for survivors spread nationwide. In May 1956, the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations was established. That August, the inaugural meeting of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations was held in the city of Nagasaki, uniting hibakusha-related organizations across Japan. The slogan "Promote campaigns against atomic and hydrogen bombs" was employed, as well as slogans in pursuit of "state compensation to victims of atomic and hydrogen bombs," "medical treatment of hibakusha and measures to help hibakusha support and rehabilitate themselves," and "compensation for the living costs of families of those killed in the atomic bombings."

The declaration of the meeting was concluded with the following words: "Let us continue this movement until the terrible atomic and hydrogen bombs are banned, lasting world peace is achieved, and nuclear sufferers are offered true relief from their suffering."

Fifty-four years have passed since the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations was established. In accordance with several laws, the confederation has, after many twists and turns, won the expansion of relief measures for A-bomb survivors, including medical treatment of hibakusha and the provision of allowances. However, compensation to those who died in the atomic bombings and their bereaved families, one of the original goals of the confederation, has not been achieved, as these people are not targeted for relief measures. For instance, A-bomb orphans, whose family members all perished due to the atomic bombings during their evacuation to rural areas, were never recognized as beneficiaries of relief measures, even measures covering those exposed to the bombings' residual radiation by entering the city of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the aftermath. Thus, they have yet to receive any governmental support. They, too, are victims -- even the greatest victims -- of the atomic bombings.

The government has so far sustained relief measures for hibakusha, saying that radiation-induced health damage due to the atomic bombings is unique in comparison with other war damage. These measures, though, fall within the framework of social security services and are not provided as a result of Japan's acknowledgement of its responsibility for the war. The stance assumed by the government is that the "general sacrifice" due to a war waged by the whole nation must be equally "endured" by all the people, but that hibakusha, who were exposed to radiation, are suffering "unique damage."

The Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations has persistently demanded that Japan accept responsibility for the war and provide compensation as a nation. In other words, the confederation has sought the enactment of an Atomic Bomb Survivors Aid Law that provides for "state compensation," as this act would constitute a refusal to simply "endure" nuclear war and pressure the government to reject nuclear weapons outright, including the U.S. "nuclear umbrella."

The confederation has explained that the enactment of an Atomic Bomb Survivors Aid Law that provides for state compensation will also pave the way for compensation to a significant number of other victims of the war, including those who have suffered due to the Great Tokyo Air Raid, and nuclear-affected sufferers in the world as a consequence of nuclear tests and other incidents. I believe that this objective and direction are not misplaced. However, it is also true that cooperation with other war victims, including victims of air raids and nuclear-affected sufferers in the world, has not necessarily been fostered as expected, despite such cooperation being advocated from early on. In order to renew the call for state compensation, cooperation with other war victims is essential.

I have read a list of eight "proposed changes to the current law" that was distributed to prefectural representatives and others at a regular general meeting of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations in Tokyo. The "current law" is the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, which took effect in 1995.

Each of these eight requested changes, including the revision of the preamble and the "specific description of payment of condolence money or special benefits to the families of those who died in the atomic bombings," was accompanied with careful explanation of the background. Such language as "Never let there be nuclear war, and ban nuclear weapons! Enact an Atomic Bomb Survivors Aid Law now!" and "When these wishes are realized, hibakusha can live as the 'foundation for peace' for the first time and those who died in the atomic bombings can rest in peace at last" were written at the end of the draft of proposed changes.

The draft also says: "Establishing a stronghold in which humans will never 'repeat that mistake'. We believe this is the mission that history has given to us, who have survived the atomic bombings. Fulfilling this mission is the only legacy that hibakusha can leave for the next generation."

I would like to express my respect to the survivors who are, with their average age over 75, holding true to lofty ideals and taking action in pursuit of nuclear abolition. In fact, a large number of hibakusha went to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, held at U.N. headquarters in New York in May, and appealed for nuclear abolition through A-bomb exhibitions and activities sharing the A-bomb experience, among other methods.

There is concern over how much support can be gained from citizens and other war victims for further enhancement of relief measures for hibakusha. Considering the enhancement of relief measures a separate issue, we can probably engage in various efforts, including efforts to call on the Japanese government to enshrine the three non-nuclear principles into law and take up the A-bomb damage properly in school education curriculum.

Apart from calling for the enhancement of relief measures, hibakusha have an important role to play in directly conveying their experiences, their wish for nuclear abolition, and their resolve not to wage war to the next generation. As time is quickly growing short, I hope that the survivors will also be able to offer sufficient time and energy to tackle these issues, too. I say this because many people, including those overseas, place their hopes on hibakusha in this regard.

(Originally published on June 21, 2010)

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A-bomb survivors request changes to relief law, renew call for state compensation (June 26, 2010)

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