Summer of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima: 52 significant minutes, Part 2

Part 2: A-bomb illness stole away children’s lives

by Kyosuke Mizukawa, Staff Writer

Kimie Omoto, 86, a resident of Asaminami Ward, still treasures a photograph that was taken in August 1955. The photo shows Hiroyuki, now 63, with 12-year-old Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukemia two months after the photo was taken. Hiroyuki was two years old at the time. Ms. Omoto said, “My son and I had such a good time with Sadako that we would sometimes lose track of the time.” Sadako was an ordinary girl who liked to sing, laugh, and watch over small children.

Children’s laughter heard around Sadako

Ms. Omoto and her son met Sadako, the girl who became the inspiration for the Children’s Peace Monument, in the children’s ward of the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, located in Naka Ward. Sadako was two years old when Hiroshima was attacked and was exposed to the atomic bomb’s radiation while at home in the Kusunoki-cho district (now part of Nishi Ward), about 1.7 kilometers from the hypocenter. Almost ten years later, in February 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized. When Hiroyuki was stricken with polio and hospitalized that May, his room faced hers.

Ms. Omoto recalled Sadako’s cheerful face when they met for the first time. She said, “Sadako entered my son’s room wearing a yukata (a light summer kimono) and proudly said that her doctor told her she would be able to recover from her illness if she wore a beautiful kimono and ate some tasty food.” When Ms. Omoto washed Sadako’s hair or gave her a piece of watermelon, Sadako expressed gratitude for her kindness.

Sadako often played with Hiroyuki. One day, when the three of them were sitting on the lawn outside the hospital, Sadako sang a song called “Awate Dokoya” (“The Flustered Barber”). She chose that song because her family ran a barbershop. Kiyo Okura, who was also hospitalized at the time and stayed in the same room with Sadako (Ms. Okura died in 2008 at the age of 67), wrote in her book Memories of Sadako, which was published in 2005, that children loved Sadako and their laughter was always heard when they were with her.

While Hiroyuki was able to leave the hospital in the middle of August, Sadako’s condition worsened as the fall wore on. On October 25, she died of leukemia, having also developed thyroid cancer.

Much higher incidence of leukemia in children

According to a report authored by Nanao Kamada, a professor emeritus of Hiroshima University who was involved in research sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of A-bomb survivors who developed leukemia rose from 1948 and reached a peak in 1955. The incidence of leukemia among A-bomb survivors has been found to be four to five times higher than non-survivors. Moreover, if only children are considered, the incidence of leukemia in children who survived the atomic bombing is dozens of times higher than that of other children.

The story of Sadako’s death spread widely in Japan and overseas because of her efforts to fold paper cranes in the hope of recovering from her illness. Kimie recalled, “I vividly remember how she folded her tiny paper cranes, so intently, and hung them on the wall.” On May 27 of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the Peace Memorial Museum in Naka Ward and looked at Sadako’s paper cranes. He then left behind four paper cranes, which he had folded himself, in Hiroshima.

In mid-July, Ms. Omoto and her son visited the Children’s Peace Monument and the museum. It was Ms. Omoto’s first visit to the museum and she wondered aloud, “What if the atomic bombing had never happened? I wish Sadako had lived.” In the museum guestbook, she expressed gladness at being able to touch her memories of Sadako at the museum. Hiroyuki said to her, “If you remember anything else, please tell me about it.”

As a child, Hiroyuki often heard his mother talk about Sadako as well as his own battle against illness, and this influenced him to become a doctor and help sustain the lives of others. An obstetrician, he has delivered many babies and keenly feels the preciousness of life. Sharing his wish, he said, “The future of so many children was stolen away because of the atomic bomb. I hope the horror and the inhumanity of the bomb will be seen in Sadako’s paper cranes.”

(Originally published on July 21, 2016)