A-bomb sur­vivor’s time to talk

Times Colonist - - The Capital And Vancouver Island - MARI YAMAGUCHI

HIROSHIMA, Ja­pan — For nearly 70 years, un­til he turned 85, Lee Jong-keun hid his past as an atomic bomb sur­vivor, fear­ful of the wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion against blast vic­tims that has long per­sisted in Ja­pan.

But Lee, 92, is now part of a fast-dwin­dling group of sur­vivors, known as hibakusha, that feels a grow­ing ur­gency — des­per­a­tion even — to tell their sto­ries. These last wit­nesses to what hap­pened 75 years ago this Thurs­day want to reach a younger gen­er­a­tion that they feel is los­ing sight of the horror.

The knowl­edge of their dwin­dling time — the av­er­age age of the sur­vivors is more than 83 and many suf­fer from the long-last­ing ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion — is cou­pled with deep frus­tra­tion over stalled progress in global ef­forts to ban nu­clear weapons. According to a re­cent Asahi news­pa­per sur­vey of 768 sur­vivors, nearly two-thirds said their wish for a nu­clear-free world is not widely shared by the rest of hu­man­ity, and more than 70 per cent called on a re­luc­tant Ja­panese gov­ern­ment to rat­ify a nu­clear weapons ban treaty.

“We must work harder to get our voices heard, not just mine but those of many other sur­vivors,” Lee said Tues­day at the Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial Mu­seum. “A nu­clear weapons ban is the start­ing point for peace.”

The first U.S. atomic bomb­ing killed 140,000 peo­ple in the city of Hiroshima. A second atomic at­tack on Na­gasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, killed another 70,000. Ja­pan sur­ren­dered on Aug. 15, bringing an end to a con­flict that be­gan with its at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in De­cem­ber 1941 dur­ing its at­tempt to con­quer Asia.

About 20,000 eth­nic Korean res­i­dents of Hiroshima are be­lieved to have died in the nu­clear at­tack. The city, a wartime mil­i­tary hub, had a large num­ber of Korean work­ers, in­clud­ing those forced to work with­out pay at mines and fac­to­ries un­der Ja­pan’s col­o­niza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula from 1910 to 1945. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, 16-year-old Lee, a second-gen­er­a­tion Korean born in Ja­pan, was on his way to work at Ja­pan’s na­tional rail­way au­thor­ity in Hiroshima when the ura­nium bomb nick­named Lit­tle Boy ex­ploded. Lee suf­fered se­vere burns on his neck that took four months to heal.

Back at work, co-work­ers wouldn’t go near him, say­ing he had “A-bomb dis­ease.” Lit­tle was known about the ef­fects of the bomb, and some be­lieved ra­di­a­tion was sim­i­lar to an in­fec­tious dis­ease.

Prospec­tive mar­riage part­ners also wor­ried about ge­netic dam­age that could be passed to chil­dren.

Lee lived un­der a Ja­panese name, Ma­saichi Egawa, un­til eight years ago, when he first pub­licly re­vealed his iden­tity dur­ing a cruise where atomic bomb sur­vivors shared their sto­ries. Un­til then, he had not even told his wife he is hibakusha.

“No eth­nic Kore­ans want to reveal their past as hibakusha,” Lee said.

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