Hiroshima Memo: Proactive support needed for A-bomb survivors in Taiwan and North Korea

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

The A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suffering from the aftereffects of radiation as well as from prejudice and discrimination, were forced to endure for more than 10 years after war's end without support of any kind from the national government. They would wait until 1957, when the Atomic Bomb Medical Relief Law was finally enacted. Acknowledging the unique nature of the damage wrought by the bomb's radiation, the law stipulated that physical examinations and medical expenses for the A-bomb survivors be covered by the national government. A-bomb sufferers’ organizations and others then continued to demand that these relief measures be enhanced and, over the years, the implementation of health management allowances and other measures came to pass. However, survivors residing overseas were not eligible for the benefits provided by these laws. The former Ministry of Health and Welfare argued that A-bomb survivors who had moved overseas were beyond the jurisdiction of Japanese law. For this reason, survivors abroad had to endure discriminatory treatment for many years.

In 2001, a ruling by the Osaka District Court forged a breakthrough in altering the stance held by the Japanese government. “Hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) are hibakusha, no matter where they reside,” was the appeal of an A-bomb survivor in South Korea who had filed the lawsuit. The ruling stated that the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law is aimed at offering relief to the survivors from a humanitarian standpoint and that excluding the survivors who reside abroad runs counter to the intent of the law. The national government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and it took another six years for the court ruling to be finalized in favor of the plaintiff.

When we look at the posture of the Japanese government, there seems to be an utter lack of willingness on the part of the government to fulfill its moral obligations for the Korean and Taiwanese survivors, who were exposed to the atomic bomb as “Japanese” people during the colonization of these countries by Japan.

Under these circumstances, second-generation A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, alongside others, have initiated a survey to support the A-bomb survivors in Taiwan, which has no diplomatic relations with Japan. This initiative is quite encouraging. As nothing has been done for more than half a century, I don't think it will be easy to fill the void, but I hope that such action will bear fruit and bring substantial support to the survivors there, leading to the proactive engagement of the Japanese government, the local governments of the A-bombed cities, and A-bomb sufferers’ organizations.

North Korea, too, has no diplomatic relations with Japan. The A-bomb survivors who were exposed to the bomb in Hiroshima or Nagasaki and then returned to North Korea have not yet been offered any support by the Japanese government and are utterly neglected. Several hundred A-bomb survivors reportedly reside in North Korea and I have heard that many are dying as they grow older.

In 2008, a delegation of eight from Hiroshima, including Shizuteru Usui, president of the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association, visited North Korea. With the cooperation of pertinent people there, discussion was held on proceeding with physical examinations and medical treatment for the A-bomb survivors in North Korea. However, a second visit has not yet materialized. This is because the relationship between the two governments has chilled due to North Korean nuclear test and other issues. In the wake of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, physicians from Hiroshima have been dispatched to the earthquake-stricken areas, but there is hope that another delegation to North Korea can be sent in the fall, as they believe that the situation in eastern Japan will have improved by that time.

No national boundaries exist for the humanitarian aid offered by physicians. Above all, physicians in Hiroshima feel a sense of mission. They say that A-bomb survivors are entitled to receive the same level of medical support no matter where they live and that it is the duty of physicians in the A-bombed cities to provide such support. The lack of diplomatic relations cannot be an excuse for neglecting the survivors in North Korea. Whatever can be done must be initiated from the grassroots level, such as the treatment of A-bomb survivors who are in urgent need. This will help ease people’s distrust between North Korea and Japan and serve as a starting point for building mutual confidence.

(Originally published on June 6, 2011)