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Prejudice haunts atomic bomb survivors
Hibakusha often hesitant to claim benefits for fear of social discrimination

By HIROSHI MATSUBARA
Staff writer

One morning, soon after she moved to Tokyo's Ota Ward in 1959, Chiyono Yoneda found a pile of lotus roots in the garbage outside her home -- the same roots she had presented to neighbors the previous day.

Tsuyako Dejima identifies a friend she was working with when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Yoneda, now 75, at first had no idea why her new neighbors had dumped the specialty product of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which had been sent by her husband's parents.

"I was told later in the day by a child at my daughter's kindergarten that his parents threw out the lotus roots, saying they would transmit the 'genbaku' (atomic bomb) to whoever ate them," said Yoneda, who was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 9, 1945. She was 19 at the time.

More than half a century after atomic bombs exploded in the skies above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many victims still live with the fear of invisible physical damage induced by radiation exposure.

Compounding this fear is the specter of prejudice toward the survivors, or hibakusha -- especially in areas far from the two cities. The roughly 10,000 hibakusha currently living in Tokyo are no exception.

Yoneda accompanied her husband to Tokyo 15 years after the bombing, only to enter a new phase of agony caused by her encounter with the bomb.

"In Tokyo, I became aware that people have both sympathy and fear toward hibakusha," she said. "Their terror regarding the hibakusha image and to our radiation exposure often made people cautious in dealing with hibakusha," she said.

She added that her daughter once nullified her engagement after her fiance's parents persistently asked whether the couple's baby might have deformities.

There were 9,269 A-bomb survivors with government-issued hibakusha certificates living in Tokyo as of the end of March, according to the metropolitan government. It is the fourth-largest concentration in Japan of such people, who numbered 297,613 nationwide as of the end of 1999, next to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukuoka prefectures.

Michiko Murata, a counselor of Toyu-kai, an association of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb victims living in Tokyo, said most of its 6,906 members moved to Tokyo to seek employment and educational opportunities.

She said, however, that some hibakusha came to the capital to get as far away as possible from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the horrors they experienced.

Nori Tohei, a 72-year-old resident of Nakano Ward who was exposed to the bomb three days before his 17th birthday, said he could not visit Hiroshima for more than 20 years after finishing school in the city in 1948.

During that time, he tried hard to forget what he saw after the blast, especially the burned faces of people who died in front of him. "What I saw was hell, and from that day I have tried to forget about Hiroshima to maintain my sanity," he said.

Toyu-kai's Murata said many group members also experienced employment or marriage discrimination, while many others still hide the fact that they were exposed to the atomic bomb.

"As seen in the widespread rumor that no plants would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years, the disastrous condition of Hiroshima and its people after the bombing imprinted a deep fear of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the minds of Japanese," she said.

"Another rumor maintained that hibakusha have contaminated blood that is inheritable or even transmittable, which only furthered people's fears," Murata said, adding that such talk must have fueled discrimination.

She said there are still many hibakusha who are hesitant to get a hibakusha certificate, which grants better welfare assistance, due to concerns that it will reveal that they were exposed to the bomb.

Around 60 people apply for the certificate in Tokyo annually, after their children or grandchildren are born healthy or marry.

Toyu-kai's name has no connotations linking it to the atomic bombs because some members do not want their families to know that they were exposed, she added.

The rumors, most of which were based on misunderstanding of the nature of radiation, were the result of media blackouts on atomic-bomb related issues imposed by the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan, said Nobuo Miyake, a 72-year-old resident of Setagaya Ward who was in Hiroshima when the bomb fell.

The GHQ imposed strict media regulations on atomic bomb- and hibakusha-related news throughout the Occupation in their attempt to monopolize information on nuclear weapons and avoid antipathy from the Japanese public, according to many historians.

"Fragmented information about the suffering of Hiroshima and hibakusha spread across the country as rumors, which inevitably included misunderstandings and exaggerations," he said.

According to a 1992 report released by the Hiroshima International Council for Health Care of the Radiation-exposed on the physical damage of atomic bombs, about 114,000 people died from the blast and radiation exposure while about 70,000 people died in Nagasaki within a couple of months after the atomic bomb blasts.

The report, compiled by 44 leading researchers into the effects of radiation on humans, also says the ratio of those who suffer from leukemia, cancer, cataracts and thyroid and chromosome disorders are higher among hibakusha than other Japanese.

But when it comes to the hereditary effects of the bombs, the researchers conclude that they saw no evidence that second-generation hibakusha have a higher ratio of such diseases, except for those exposed to radiation as a fetus.

To further determine the hereditary effects on second generation victims, a full-scale comparative study of 15,000 second-generation victims and nonvictims will begin later this month by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation.

Some critics also blame antinuclear campaigns by Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims for perpetrating prejudice against hibakusha, as the campaigns inevitably punctuate the horrific image of the atomic bombings and its victims' suffering.

Tsuyako Dejima, 74, of Mitaka, western Tokyo, has spoken about her Hiroshima experiences to younger generations at schools in the city for the past 25 years. She lost her father, sister and brother in the bombing, while she herself has scars all over her body incurred by glass blown by the blast.

Her two sons, 48 and 32, are still single, and Dejima said she often blames herself, feeling that her radiation exposure and taking part in antinuclear campaigns has made it difficult for them to marry.

"I believe it my mission to speak out for those who died in the least humane manner, but I still wonder if my participation in peace campaigns has disturbed the lives of my children."

The Japan Times: May 8, 2001
(C) All rights reserved

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