Dr. Shuntaro Hida with other conference attendees. Image: Mari Shibata

Japan's Last A-Bomb Survivors Push to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

As the "Hibakusha"—survivors of atomic bombings—get older, they look to younger generations to carry on their legacy of activism.

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Aug 6 2015, 2:30pm

Dr. Shuntaro Hida with other conference attendees. Image: Mari Shibata

Thousands of people gathered in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park on Thursday in the scorching heat, remembering with a one-minute silence those who had died 70 years ago as the world's first atomic bomb victims. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during the ceremony that as the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, Japan had an "important mission" to promote nuclear disarmament.

But the future of that mission is being questioned by survivors who continued to live with the pain of that day for another 70 years.

A day before, the Nihon Hidankyo, Japan's only national organization for A-bomb survivors, hosted their last ever conference to bring together the Hibakusha—survivors of the atomic bombings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The group's secretary general, Terumi Tanaka, expressed fears that they will not live to see their fight for a nuclear-free world come to life.

"As we Hibakusha reach an average age of 80 this year, our efforts lobbying for survivors' healthcare rights spanning over five decades has taken its toll," he told Motherboard. "We are no longer able to overcome physical and mental limitations that come with old age. We need help from the younger generation to continue our legacy; if I had to pick one issue that would survive beyond my death, it would be the fight to eliminate nuclear weapons from this earth."

Nihon Hidankyo Secretary General Terumi Tanaka. Image: Mari Shibata

86-year-old Nobo Miyake—who was just 1.8km away from the epicenter of where US forces dropped the nuclear weapon on August 6, 1945—is one of the few Hibakusha who still speaks publicly as part of this fight. Having just returned from a two-week peace boat tour, he stood firmly in front of an audience of around 300 to share what he had witnessed.

"I was traveling from Hiroshima station to my mother's house on a tram at around 8.15 that morning when I suddenly saw a bright blue light flash on the ceiling of the carriage," he said. "I didn't know what it was, I thought an accident had happened or something. At that point—when I was deciding whether to get off the train or not—the bomb hit the ground."

The uranium-based bomb "Little Boy" dropped 580 metres above a T-shaped bridge at the junction of Honkawa and Motoyasu rivers, killing approximately 80,000 people instantly in the blast or from firestorms that raged after. The explosion, equal to that of 12,000-15,000 tonnes of TNT, destroyed approximately two thirds of Hiroshima's buildings across five square miles. "I couldn't see anything because of the smoke and ash creating radioactive black rain, so I continued to lay down on the ground," Miyake said. "When it had drifted away, what I saw was complete destruction; no buildings were left, the town was on fire."

"I rushed to my mother's house as fast as I could with a burnt hand," Miyake continued. "Thankfully it was just five minutes away from where I was and I found her alive. I headed south and carried her on my back, passing the many dead bodies floating in the river, as well as those screaming from severe burns and dehydration who resorted to drinking black water full of chemicals from the bomb. As I convinced the military to take my mother along with the others injured on a truck, she luckily survived after being treated for her wounds despite the pain that continued for years; everybody else on the vehicle could not survive the journey."

Hibakusha attending the conference were asked to stand and make themselves known. Image: Mari Shibata

As Miyake finished his speech, he fell flat on the floor. The audience gasped, and staff rushed to help him in fear of the worst; luckily, he hadn't fallen on his head. A couple of minutes later, he stood up and resumed his seat.

It was now Susumu Nishiyama's turn to speak, who demanded a chair to sit on as he shared his experience in Nagasaki, where US forces dropped their second atomic bomb on August 9 at 11:02 local time, exploding about 500 metres above the ground killing more than 70,000 people.

"I was working inside a factory located 2.8km away from the epicenter when I saw a light that was like seeing a camera flash a thousand times at once," he said. "The factory turned totally white. Glass scattered all over the floor like crumbs of sea salt. The sounds of the motors stopped. Next, all I could hear was voices from inside the factory's air raid shelter. They screamed for medicine and bandages, as the smoke completely covered the sky over a lake of fire outside."

An author and artist who has penned his views on nuclear-free world for decades, Nishiyama is more concerned with the future of the country he may not be a part of soon.

"The best thing I can do is to be here and hope the future generations will continue to tell our stories."

"With our government approving laws that would allow Japan's armed forces to fight abroad for the first time since World War II last month, I am very concerned that I will not be able to see through the future of this nation that is going back to its old ways," he said. "While we, the only people who understand the consequences of the atomic bomb, are rapidly diminishing, they are also justifying participation in conflicts. The US had to drop the nuclear weapon for the second time on my city just so that the Japanese Emperor could come to terms with the fact that he had lied to his own people about Japan's achievements in the war; it did ultimately lead to his surrender just a week later on August 15, 1945. I don't want such a thing to happen ever again to my country, even after my death."

The oldest person in the room—who happened to be sitting behind me—was 98-year-old former doctor Shuntaro Hida, who had survived the Hiroshima A-bomb and extensively studied its after-effects. "I've been to London too! I have quite a few friends there," he told me excitedly, with a smile that overpowered his quiet voice. "Although I would like to go back and persuade the whole world against nuclear weapons, it's impossible for me to travel now. Although I'm worried about the future of this country following recent developments, I'm strapped into this wheelchair and communicating with people is difficult. The best thing I can do is to be here and hope the future generations will continue to tell our stories."

Too frail to move, he greeted fellow survivors and young student activists. Smiling throughout, his enthusiasm was genuine; but a family member concerned by the amount of public attention swiftly pushed him away from the venue as the event drew to a close.