NAGASAKI – The government has come under growing pressure to be more flexible in supporting foreign survivors of the August 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The government began in 2001 to study how to treat survivors living abroad as most of them had been unable to benefit from Japanese relief measures. Authorities have mapped out programs to medically or financially support them, but in many cases not aggressively so.
Many survivors, their families and supporters have had to wait for a lengthy legal process in Japan and have expressed discontent with the government’s rigid position.
Between July 20 and 24, a team of Japanese physicians visited a welfare facility in Hapchon, South Korea, to conduct health checks and counseling for hibakusha there, the first time Japanese doctors have gone abroad to treat foreign A-bomb survivors.
The team was sent by the Nagasaki prefectural and municipal governments as part of a program by the central government to support about 5,000 registered radiation survivors living abroad, including some 2,200 South Koreans. Others include North Koreans, Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the United States and Brazil.
Most foreign hibakusha were in Japan as prisoners of war or forced laborers.
Hiroshima prefectural and city officials conduct similar health-care programs on a regular basis for Japanese who have moved to North and South America.
“The visit to South Korea was aimed at relieving A-bomb survivors’ concerns, and we were able to get some satisfactory outcomes,” said Toru Shukuwa, a Nagasaki prefectural official.
But the effectiveness of the program has already been called into question.
The medical team treated 70 people living in the facility, about 3 percent of all South Koreans recognized as A-bomb survivors by the South Korean Red Cross Society.
Although Nagasaki Prefecture says it plans to provide similar services to some 100 other victims by March, Shukuwa admitted, “It will take roughly 10 years to check all of them if we move at the current pace.”
A legal constraint bolsters the view that the health-care program is impractical.
Doctors in the team can only provide simple individual consultations for patients because Japanese doctors are forbidden from practicing medicine in South Korea.
“We have to admit that is something we cannot overcome,” Shukuwa said, adding they are going to study a more effective form of assistance after the second visit.
But this view has drawn outrage from the survivors’ relatives and supporters.
“We have no more time to waste, but the government is always slow to take action,” said Nobuto Hirano, a representative of a nationwide group of Japanese born to hibakusha. “Most of the radiation victims in South Korea are turning 70, 80 or older and are dying, like Mr. Choi Gye Chol.”
Hirano, 57 , was referring to a South Korean man who died on July 25 at age 78 while awaiting a Japanese court ruling on his case over medical allowances granted by the government to A-bomb survivors both inside and outside Japan.
In 1980, the government granted Choi the right to receive the medical benefits but later voided this right when he returned to South Korea.
A Japanese court in 2002 ordered the government to pay allowances to survivors living in Japan and abroad alike.
Although Choi was then already suffering ill health, the Nagasaki Municipal Government demanded he come to Japan again to have his allowances reinstated, dismissing an application by his supporters acting on his behalf.
Choi sued the city in February, seeking to overturn its decision. The Nagasaki District Court will hand down a ruling Sept. 28.
Choi was not able to be hospitalized until days before his death because he did not have enough money. The supporters blame the government, saying its rigidity killed the father of six children.
“It is ridiculous,” Hirano said. “The allowances are for those suffering poor health. But the government demanded a visit by a man who couldn’t travel due to poor health.”
At a recent symposium held in Tokyo by people born to A-bomb survivors, Lee Tae Chae, a senior member of a South Korean group of second-generation victims, said, “The Japanese government seems to be waiting until all South Korean victims die off.”
On the treatment of second-generation victims, Japanese and South Korean groups in recent years have meanwhile boosted their cooperation in their fight against the Japanese government.
On July 26, they submitted a petition to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, calling for more steps to improve medical and welfare support, such as more frequent and thorough checks.
The government provides financial and medical benefits to hibakusha who are strictly defined under the Atomic Bomb Victims Relief Law. Under it, however, both Japanese and foreigners born to the victims cannot receive aid unless they were in the womb at the time of the bombings.
Hirano said that even if the government treats the second generation, victims must pay the travel costs themselves to take free but very simple checks of blood and blood pressure. They can also consult a doctor, but there is no testing for cancer stemming from possible radiation exposure in the womb.
The exact number of second-generation victims is unknown, according to Hirano, who said that as far as the Japanese are concerned, they were born to an estimated 300,000 parents.
Researchers have noted the second generation can develop health problems such as cancer, hypertension, diabetes and hardening of the arteries due to radiation.