Whenever Lee Jong-keun speaks to children about his experience as a Hiroshima A-bomb survivor, he begins by showing them a picture of the mushroom cloud. Then the 90-year-old Korean explains that Japanese were not the only people who died.
When it reopened in April after a two-year renovation, the main building of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had set up a new section featuring foreign victims for the first time.
Estimates of the foreign deaths caused by the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki range from several thousand to tens of thousands for each, according to the cities. People from the Korean Peninsula, which was then under Japanese colonial rule, are believed to have accounted for the vast majority.
Near the museum is a monument that says the lives of “more than 20,000 Koreans” were taken.
But Lee’s journey to being able to talk about his experience as a hibakusha was a long one that wound through decades of hiding both his ethnic identity and presence in Hiroshima during the bombing.
For years he never clarified he was a victim, or even that he was Korean. Lee, who was born in 1928 in Shimane Prefecture, suffered racial discrimination from his classmates as a student.
Using the name Masaichi Egawa after Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names in 1939, he kept his background secret after joining the local railway bureau.
Lee was on his way to work there in central Hiroshima when he was suddenly “wrapped in a yellow light” on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. Then just 16 at the time, he managed to survive the initial blast but his entire body was scorched. In the months that followed, he was seized by the fear of death.
Even many years after the war, Lee thought it was “out of the question” to pass on his A-bomb experience to the public and reveal his ethnic identity.
But after going around the world in 2012 on a cruise organized by the antinuclear group Peace Boat, he began to feel how important it was to add his voice to the growing number of hibakusha who were speaking out to help abolish nuclear weapons.
Lee still lives in Hiroshima and now spends much of his time telling his story to students who are visiting on field trips. He also gives speeches at local schools.
“I’m glad that the renovated museum installed the section focusing on foreign victims because the general public is still mostly unaware of their existence,” Lee said.
According to the museum, tens of thousands of Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese were in Hiroshima at the time of the blast, including those were conscripted and those recruited in their homelands.
The exhibit also explains that other people, such as students from Southeast Asia and China, German and Russian residents and American prisoners of war, also died.
In the new section, three non-Japanese are highlighted on wall panels with big photos above their stories: an elderly South Korean, a student from Malaysia and a German priest.
The Korean, Kwak Kwi-hoon, now 94, was conscripted by the Japanese military and came to Hiroshima in September 1944.
The bomb exploded while Kwak was on duty about 2 km from the hypocenter. He was severely burned on his head and back and fell into a coma for three days from Aug. 9.
Later he came to be known as the plaintiff in a breakthrough Japanese high court ruling that ordered the central government to pay him a medical allowance as part of measures to assist hibakusha. The ruling became final and binding in 2002, and the government began paying him the following year.
Since then, several hibakusha abroad have applied for health cards that identify them as survivors entitled to the benefits.
As of March 2018, there were 3,123 holders of the card abroad, including 2,241 in South Korea, 667 in the U.S., 95 in Brazil, 31 in Canada and 17 in Taiwan, according to the health ministry.
“In the past, Japanese public servants would refuse to deal with me (as a hibakusha), just because I was living overseas,” said Kwak, who lives in Seongnam, near Seoul. “I hope that more people will get to know about foreign victims and survivors.”
The city of Hiroshima set up an advisory panel in 2010 to organize a third major renewal plan for the museum, which opened in 1955. The panel met many times to discuss how to display the new exhibit.
“We decided to put individual victims into focus, to tell people that not only Japanese people but whoever was there was bombed, regardless of their nationality,” said Hironobu Ochiba, a curator in charge of the section. “We thought it could also help visitors from overseas feel closer to the tragedy.”
Foreign visitors to the museum are rising steadily and set an annual record of about 430,000 for the year through March, even though total visits were down by about 160,000 from the previous year at around 1.52 million.
Ochiba said the most significant challenge in handing down the stories of the foreign A-bomb victims is insufficient materials, documents and information.
“We want to find more materials so that we can introduce various victims from various perspectives,” Ochiba said.
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