While Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president in May highlighted again the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, Japan’s major anti-nuclear group, which has led the movement for 60 years at home and abroad, sees a rocky road ahead as its membership declines with the passing of atomic bomb survivors.
Since its establishment on Aug. 10, 1956, the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations has called on the government to support survivors of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while at the same time seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Our proclamation issued at the inauguration ceremony says we pledged ‘to save humanity from its crisis through the lessons learned from our experiences, while at the same time saving ourselves,’ ” 87-year-old Mikiso Iwasa, one of the representatives of the organization, said on June 15 in Tokyo.
“That determination is alive in our hearts to this day,” he said at a general meeting before the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the organization, better known as Nihon Hidankyo.
An atomic bomb survivors’ organization in Hiroshima had about 33,000 members at its peak in 1986 and another in Nagasaki Prefecture had 10,000 in the mid-1990s. But their current memberships stand at roughly 5,000 and 3,000, respectively, according to the divisions.
More than 60 percent of the local chapters have seen their memberships reduced to less than half of their peaks, according to a recent Kyodo News survey. Four local groups have either disbanded or come to a natural end. The group once had local divisions in all of the nation’s 47 prefectures.
The average age of atomic bomb survivors, also known as hibakusha, stood at 80.86 as of the end of March, according to the latest welfare ministry data. The government recognized 174,080 hibakusha as of March 31.
“The actual state of the damage from the atomic bombings would not have been known by the world to this extent if it were not for Hidankyo as Japan did not conduct any official surveys on the damage,” said Yoshie Kurihara, a 69-year-old former official of Nihon Hidankyo.
“We just cannot let the anti-nuclear and peace movement end here after Hidankyo has worked so hard on it,” said Ikuro Anzai, a radiation protection expert and professor emeritus of Ritsumeikan University.
Nihon Hidankyo was established with the goals of pressuring the Japanese government to provide state compensation to atomic bomb survivors and lobbying governments to eliminate nuclear weapons.
The group was founded amid growing anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan after the tuna fishing boat Fukuryu Maru No. 5, also known as the Lucky Dragon, was exposed to radioactive fallout in the Pacific following a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. One of its 23 crew members died six months later due to acute radiation poisoning.
After the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, hibakusha were silenced for a decade by the American occupation forces’ control of information about the radiation damage, and by Japanese government inaction.
The incident served as a driving force for the survivors to convene the first Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima in 1955, and eventually led to the formation of the nationwide group in the following year.
Since then, Nihon Hidankyo has played an important role domestically in gaining medical and financial support for atomic bomb survivors and pushing the government to enact related laws. It is still fighting for state compensation that the government has yet to pay.
But Terumi Tanaka, the 84-year-old secretary-general of Nihon Hidankyo, said its most important task is that members convey their experiences of the atomic bombings directly and show others that human beings cannot coexist with nuclear power.
By sending its members to various events outside Japan, including the conference for reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to provide eyewitness testimony, Nihon Hidankyo has acquired international acclaim for creating a powerful anti-nuclear movement, Tanaka said, adding it has worked with many peace groups abroad.
“The (survivors’) activities are precious as they have recalled cruel experiences they didn’t want to recall, just for the sake of others,” so that mankind will not try to conduct another nuclear war, said Anzai of Ritsumeikan University.
By these activities, Nihon Hidankyo became a “symbol of peace and the anti-nuclear movement in postwar Japan,” said Akiko Naono, associate professor at Kyushu University. The group’s voice grew “powerful as a moral authority” on the back of the global anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, she said, as it was vigorously involved in providing verbal testimony at international events.
One well-known banner read, “There should never be another hibakusha.”
This is “particularly worth noting,” Naono, a sociologist studying memories of the atomic bombings, said in a recent interview. The group has gained universal acceptance as the cause was something many people could relate to, she said.
Because of its efforts for the elimination of nuclear weapons, Nihon Hidankyo has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times since 1985, it said.
However, its declining membership is a major source of concern.
To carry on, the group needs to enlist younger people, including the children and grandchildren of survivors, “while the first generation (who actually experienced the atomic bombings) are still active,” said Tanaka, who is a hibakusha.
But Anzai says involving the descendants of the survivors may not be easy as many of them keep tight-lipped about their parents’ and grandparents’ radiation exposure, fearing possible discrimination. Some parents have even avoided telling their children about their exposure.
Anzai says the government should create a national archive to keep alive the memories of the hibakusha. “The individual and personal memories of hibakusha should now be preserved as collective memories,” he said.
The organization is now aiming to further expand its presence abroad by launching an international signature campaign to push countries to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.
In cooperation with other peace and anti-nuclear groups in Japan and elsewhere, the organization hopes to collect hundreds of millions of signatures worldwide and start submitting them to the U.N. General Assembly every year by 2020, it said.
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