Opinion: Passing of two A-bomb survivors renews our commitment to convey inhumanity of nuclear weapons

by Hiromi Morita, Editorial Writer

The past ten days have been distressing. In quick succession, two A-bomb survivors in Nagasaki, both leaders of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, have passed away.

One was Sumiteru Taniguchi, whose back was severely burned by the heat rays of the atomic bomb in a split second. Holding a photo that showed his scarlet-colored back, he appealed continuously against the cruelty of nuclear weapons, both in Japan and overseas. The other survivor was Hideo Tsuchiyama, a former president of Nagasaki University, who spoke about the significance of nuclear abolition from a theoretical standpoint, based on his own experience of the atomic bombing. He was long seen as an intellectual force in the nuclear abolition movement.

With the passage of time, the deaths of A-bomb survivors are inevitable. But these deaths, of Mr. Taniguchi and Mr. Tsuchiyama, have now made plain to me that the reality of those who can personally testify to the pain and suffering of human beings as a result of the atomic bombings will one day be lost.

Since the beginning of this year, a number of people considered “symbols” of the A-bomb survivors have passed away: Shuntaro Hida, an advisor to the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations and a doctor who made significant contributions to the medical treatment of A-bomb survivors; Kyoko Hayashi, a writer and winner of the Akutagawa Prize who produced many works based on the A-bomb experience; Kazu Sueishi, who long shared her accounts of the atomic bombing in the United States; and Yoshie Oka, who made persistent efforts to hand down to younger generations her experience of sending out the first message about the devastation that befell Hiroshima.

And now, as if to pour salt on our emotional wounds, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles and performed nuclear tests, while the United States, a nuclear superpower, has continually provoked North Korea by raising the possibility of using force to solve this problem. As a result, a sense of crisis over the potential use of nuclear weapons has grown to an alarming pitch.

Amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, a spate of A-bomb survivors’ deaths has made me feel even more depressed and deeply frustrated. If the scores of lives lost in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings 72 years ago, along with the tremendous suffering that the A-bomb survivors have experienced to this day, are understood even to a modest degree, this bitter war of words perpetrated by the leaders of the United States and North Korea, both possessors of nuclear weapons, is beyond comprehension.

At international conferences, Mr. Taniguchi would hold up a photo of his scarred body and deliver words like: “Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot coexist” and “Possessing nuclear weapons or just trying to possess nuclear weapons is inhumane.” His unflagging stance, saying that the use of such weapons is folly, while at the same time showing his audiences the deep scars which afflicted his own body and mind, had enormous impact and persuasive power.

Mr. Tsuchiyama, who knew only too well the devastation caused by an atomic bomb, also expended considerable effort in explaining that the abolition of nuclear weapons is a vital issue that involves all human beings, not merely the people of the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said, “To spread the stories of the survivors’ experiences, it is not enough to talk about them only theoretically or only emotionally. It is important to talk about these experiences in both ways, since both are closely connected.” Nobuto Hirano, 70, who felt deep respect for Mr. Hida and Mr. Taniguchi and has been engaged in nuclear abolition efforts in Nagasaki as a second-generation A-bomb survivor, says that their deaths feel like the end of an era. “I’m in a state of shock,” he said.

Why must nuclear weapons be banned? The A-bomb survivors have persistently explained the reasons why and condemned any use of nuclear arms. Above all, then, what concerns me is the possibility that the passing of the A-bomb survivors leads to a turning point where the earth’s nuclear arsenals will expand.

When the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted at the United Nations in July, many people were thrilled and believed this would mark the start of a worldwide trend toward abolishing these weapons. The treaty is an international law that comprehensively outlaws not only the use of nuclear arms, but also their development, testing, possession, and the threat of their use.

The treaty’s preamble stipulates that the total elimination of nuclear weapons remains the only way to guarantee that they are never used again under any circumstances. This stance holds the power to press the nuclear powers and those nations under a nuclear umbrella, all of which still rely on nuclear deterrence for their security. Although not all countries have backed the treaty, the adoption of this agreement can be interpreted as the product of efforts from the A-bombed cities, whose people have long called for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

There is no doubt that the strong appeals against nuclear weapons made by the A-bomb survivors, exemplified by Mr. Taniguchi, have forced the international community to place increasing importance on the inhumane aspects of nuclear arms, which then led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

On the other hand, the politicians of nations that have rebuffed the treaty seem not to fully grasp the devastation that nuclear weapons can wreak on human beings both physically and emotionally. Or do they dare to simply ignore the consequences of the use of nuclear arms?

“I am not a guinea pig, nor am I an exhibit. But all of you, who are here today, please do not turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again,” said Mr. Taniguchi in the speech that he delivered at the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Mr. Tsuchiyama left these wise words behind: “Nagasaki has a duty to speak out on behalf of the many victims of the atomic bombing who regretfully left this world.”

Those of us who have listened to the stories of the A-bomb survivors have an obligation to hand down what we have learned from them to the generations that follow. To what extent can we comprehend the pain and suffering of the survivors and how faithfully and clearly can we convey their experiences to the world? The A-bomb survivors have left us with this challenging task.

(Originally published on September 7, 2017)