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Korean hibakusha in Hiroshima recalls dual discrimination he secretly endured

by Yuji Yamamoto

Chugoku Shimbun

This new monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region.

For much of his life, Lee Jong Keun felt he had to hide two aspects of his identity: his status as a second-generation Korean in Japan and his history as an A-bomb survivor.

“I suffered from dual discrimination,” the 88-year-old said, recalling his younger days.

But when he made an around-the-world trip four years ago to share his account of the atomic bombing, he began using his real name in the hope that the discrimination he experienced could be brought to an end.

Lee was born in Hikimi, now part of Masuda, Shimane Prefecture. Both of his parents were from the Korean Peninsula. At the age of 1 or 2, he moved to the village of Yoshiwa, now part of Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture. Then, in line with soshi kaimei, the Japanese government’s policy in 1939 of pressuring Koreans to adopt Japanese names, he began to call himself Masaichi Egawa.

He experienced Japanese discrimination first-hand.

As a sixth-grader in the kokumin gakko (elementary and midlevel national schools created during World War II) a neighbor called him “Korean,” told him to stand on the side of a road and urinated on him. At school, when a girl was crying, his teacher and classmates blamed him. “There was nothing I could do except give in and endure the discrimination,” he said.

Later he moved to the village of Saka, now part of the town by the same name in Hiroshima Prefecture, and graduated from Yokohama National School. He landed a sought-after job at the engine depot of the Hiroshima Railway Bureau but hid the fact that he was Korean.

Lee was 15 when Hiroshima was hit by the atomic bomb in August 1945. At the time, he was on his way to work in Higashikaniya (now part of Hiroshima’s Higashi Ward) from his home in the village of Hera (now part of Hatsukaichi) and had just gotten off a streetcar. After crossing the Kojin Bridge near Hiroshima Station, about 1.8 km from the hypocenter, he was suddenly bathed in a yellowish light.

He lay down on the ground, covering his eyes, ears and nose. After a while, he lifted his head and found that it was very dark all around him. After waiting until there was more light, he looked around. His lunch box, which he had placed at his feet, had been blown about 20 meters away, and his work cap and glasses were gone. He didn’t realize his face, neck, hands and feet were burned until he took refuge under the bridge and was told his face was red.

When he reached the engine depot, his coworkers were taken aback by his injuries and applied the black oil used for locomotives to his burned skin. He remembers shedding tears because it was so painful. He then rested in the air-raid shelter there and left the depot at around 4 p.m.

After walking about 16 km, he finally arrived home at around 10 p.m. But his parents were out because they were looking for him. An hour later, his mother returned and shouted, “Oh my!” in Korean. They held onto each other and wept. His father came back in the afternoon of the following day, but his older sister, who lived in a dormitory near the Army Clothing Depot where she worked, in a district now part of Minami Ward, was never found.

For four months, until his burns began to heal, he feared he would die. Each day he tugged on his hair to see if it would fall out. He had maggots in the wounds around his neck.

One day, feeling so sorry for his suffering, his mother uttered in tears that she wished death would soon take him. Lee remembers her tears dropping on his cheek.

When he finally returned to work, a co-worker told him that others there might catch his “A-bomb disease.” This distressed him, and because he also felt uncomfortable hiding his Korean identity, he quit his job at the engine depot in 1946. He then made ends meet by selling recycled goods. He got married and had three daughters and, in the process, gradually set aside his memories of the atomic bombing.

In 2012, he was selected to join a group of A-bomb survivors for a Peace Boat voyage around the world. During the trip, he shared his story on board and at ports of call, using his real name for the first time. “I wanted others to be aware of the fact that it was not only Japanese people who experienced the atomic bombing,” he said.

On this voyage, as well as the second one in 2014, he visited many places including Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster, and Auschwitz, site of the former concentration camp in Poland where untold numbers of people, mostly of Jewish descent, were killed in World War II. Through these trips, he said he was able to again recognize the terror posed by nuclear energy and the tragedies brought about by racial discrimination.

“All human lives are equal. War is a foolish undertaking that only leaves sorrow,” he said, pinning his hopes for the future on younger generations.

The original article was published on Nov. 7, 2016.