This is the third report in a five-part series looking at the impact of World War II still being felt in Japanese society.
Facing his fellow survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Atsushi Takeshita begrudgingly announced last month that his group, comprised of about 100 hibakusha, will put an end to more than 60 years of activity because its members are getting too old.
Most members of his group, based in the remote Hiroshima town of Saijo, are now in their mid-80s, and some are almost too senile to handle daily life, said Takeshita, who is 84.
But what shocked Takeshita more was the reluctance of hibakusha offspring to take over his group’s role of passing on the terror of nuclear weapons to future generations.
“Most of them have moved to the city and are busy with their own work. They are simply not interested in being involved” in running the organization, Takeshita said. “Disbanding the group was an agonizing decision to make.”
According to Hiroshima-based newspaper Chugoku Shimbun, 35.5 percent of the 121 hibakusha organizations it surveyed in July said they may have no other option but to disband once the number of surviving hibakusha becomes too few. The newspaper also reported that “only a few” organizations answered they were confident they can operate for another decade.
With the aging of hibakusha, whose average age topped 80 for the first time in March, expectations are rising that their offspring can carry the torch of sharing the experience of atomic bomb survivors along with their call for peace and nuclear nonproliferation.
But the reality is many of these second-generation survivors, often in their 50s or younger, are wary of talking about an experience they have no first-hand knowledge about. And they have their own agendas — different from those of their parents.
As such, survivors’ organizations nationwide will probably disappear in the coming years.
Michio Yoshida, 57, whose father, Kazuto, is a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which killed 74,000 people, is one of the few making an effort to relay his father’s experience.
In 2005, when Japan marked the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing, Yoshida, a freelance writer, published a 16-page booklet featuring his father’s account of the Nagasaki bombing. Though the book was well-received, Yoshida acknowledged the difficulties of depicting someone else’s experience.
“All we can talk about is the simple facts of what happened. Subtle details such as emotions and inner thoughts are only for those who actually experienced the tragedy to tell,” Yoshida said. “We can’t help with that.”
Yoshida serves as secretary-general of Orizuru no Ko (Children of Paper Cranes), the only group in Tokyo dedicated to supporting hibakusha offspring. There are currently about 100 members, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s.
For the children of hibakusha, prejudice and discrimination is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed.
“I was once told by the parents of my fiance that they were against our marriage because they were afraid that me being a child of hibakusha might make our baby born with a deformity,” one wrote in a survey conducted by Toyukai (Tokyo Federation of A-Bomb Sufferers’ Organizations).
“Ever since I was told I may not be able to get married because I’m a child of hibakusha, I’ve always chosen to hide my background,” another wrote.
The frustrating part is that hibakusha offspring can’t say for certain that genetic effects of radiation passed on from their parents wouldn’t affect their health or the health of their children.
So far the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, an organization jointly funded by Tokyo and Washington, has yet to find any link between a parent’s radiation exposure and a child’s health.
Ongoing comparative research by the institution on 77,000 children of hibakusha and nonhibakusha has found no difference in the fatality rate.
A separate survey of children of hibakusha by the same organization has found no link between their parents’ radiation exposure and their own incidence of lifestyle-related diseases.
But the lack of medical evidence is only causing them to worry more.
A recent survey carried out by Toyukai found that about 60 percent of hibakusha offspring in Tokyo live in “some sort of fear,” including of possible genetic effects of radiation, sudden development of illness and possible health effect on their children.
Midori Yamada, a 66-year-old daughter of an atomic bomb survivor in Hiroshima, suspects her father’s exposure to radiation may be taking a toll on her health. Ever since being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, Yamada said she has undergone numerous rounds of medical treatment.
“I want to know the truth. I want to know whether my father being exposed to radiation has anything to do with my current condition,” the Tokyo resident said. “I don’t want the truth to be swept under the carpet.”
Another, 47-year-old Toyoko Tasaki, also has health fears.
Her mother, a Hiroshima native, survived the atomic bombing when she was 10 and died of a liver cancer in 2010 at age of 75.
On her deathbed, her mother lamented that the lingering effects of radiation must have caused her cancer and begged Tasaki to sue the state so she can be recognized — even posthumously — as a victim of radiation sickness. Tasaki later successfully followed through with her mother’s wish.
Five years on, Tasaki now fears that a similar tragedy may occur to her and her 5-year-old daughter.
“I am haunted by this constant fear that something may happen to me at any time,” Tasaki said. “Just like my mom was worried about me, I am now worried about my own child, too. As a mother, I want to do whatever I can to eliminate every possible threat to my daughter’s health.”
Their frustration is also targeted at the government because of what they call its inadequate support measures.
At present, the central government only offers them a free annual health checkup, although prefectures such as Tokyo and Shizuoka allow them a cancer screening test at their own initiative.
But Yamada said that isn’t enough. She wants the government to conduct thorough research on the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 children of hibakusha across the country, keep a tally and provide whatever health care is necessary.
“I think the (government) has ultimate responsibility to pursue and see what effect the atomic bombing could cause to humanity over generations. Refusing to do any investigation (on our situation would be) a horrible mistake,” Yamada said.
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