TECH TALK TUESDAY – Surviving Hiroshima

nancy Techie Tues 9-2-97

It’s been a half century – but the survivors of Nuclear War are still suffering from strange and painful ailments.

Activists like Sunao Tsuboi talk about their experiences in the hope that such a war never happens again.

Nuclear War Survivor
on Lecture Tour 

by Akiko Shiozaki

HIROSHIMA–Sunao Tsuboi needs daily doses of medicine and weekly drip transfusions to maintain his health, but that doesn’t stop him from hopping across Japan to give a couple of lectures a day, retelling the tragedy of the nuclear bomb explosion he experienced 53 years ago. 

Suffering both from advancing age and lingering effects of radiation, atomic bomb survivors are experiencing deteriorating health, according to a Ministry of Health and Welfare survey released Monday.

According to the survey, 80 percent of the survivors – with an average age of 66.9 – were being treated by doctors at the time they were questioned.

The survey was actually taken in 1995, but the results took a great deal of time to analyze, ministry officials said.

The 324,000 people polled are classified as hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, by the government. Those designated carry special documents identifying them as survivors of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

About 76.7 percent, or 248,553 survivors, responded, a decrease of 10 percentage points from a previous survey in 1985. Officials attributed the decrease to the aging of the hibakusha, saying many were unable to write and fill in a questionnaire.

The average age of those who responded was 66.9, compared with 60 in the 1985 survey.

The percentage of those who were hospitalized at the time of the latest survey in October 1995 was 6.3 percent, while 74.2 percent of respondents said they had visited a doctor in that month.

In the previous survey conducted in 1985, corresponding figures were 4.2 percent and 38.4 percent respectively.

The rate of those who lived alone almost doubled from the previous poll, totaling 20 percent.

The survey also showed that one in 10 survivors who were 65 year old or older were categorized as bedridden or close to that condition.

Ministry officials said they realized that need for nursing care had apparently increased, but observers said it is not clear if the ministry will act on the results of the survey to improve care for the hibakusha.

Atomic bomb survivors criticized the survey because they said it focused on statistics, not the individual voices of survivors.

“Survivors have scars in their minds, even though they may not have them on the skin,” said one hibakusha who lives alone in a condominium in Tokyo.

Setsuko Fukuhara, 71, who lives in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, said she almost lost eyesight in her right eye more than 10 years ago. Fukuhara’s doctor blamed the ailment on her having seen the flash of the atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima when she was 18 years old.

The effects of the bomb killed many of her relatives – including her father, younger brother, and husband, Fukuhara said.

She said she has thought of suicide hundreds of times.

Another survivor, Aiko Watanabe, 75, of Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, takes 14 kinds of drugs a day. She said it is unbelievable she is still alive.

The atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, left him with an irrecoverable defect in blood formation that has caused him to lapse into critical condition several times in the past half century.

To various kinds of people, ranging from children to students and lawyers, Tsuboi, secretary-general of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organization, recalls the terror of nuclear weapons and the survivors’ suffering that would linger for the rest of their lives.

Contrary to the vitality he shows while talking, the 73-year-old man finds himself exhausted at home everyday after completing his schedule, he said.

“I may die anytime, maybe next week,” said Tsuboi, showing a smile on his face with scars of burns.

“So I should talk (about the terror) as much as possible while I’m alive,” said Tsuboi, giving a reason for his pushing his weak bones hard.

Tsuboi was 20 years old and on a road about 1 kilometer from ground zero the day the bomb exploded. He was blown back about 10 meters from the impact and found himself in the dark. He understood later that he was in the mushroom cloud that time.

Because of the shock, he was unaware of the burns and injuries he suffered all over his body until minutes after the bombing, he said. After receiving minimal treatment, he lost consciousness and remained unconscious for 40 days, unaware of Japan’s defeat.

He finally recovered and served as a mathematics teacher at a junior high school. While teaching, he also promoted peace education as a leader of the local education board. He retired seven years ago and took his present position at the A-bomb survivors group.

Tsuboi has talked to both Japanese people and foreigners. He has spoken in Nevada, where a U.S. nuclear testing site is located, and at U.N. headquarters in New York. He also visited France, China and India.

Many people overseas do not know about the cruel effects of nuclear radiation, he said.

“Even intellectual people think they are just powerful bombs. They don’t care about how the weapons affect human beings,” he said.

As a leading member of the Hiroshima Citizens Group for Promoting Peace with People of India and Pakistan, he went to New Delhi and Bombay in India in November. He gave lectures to the public and government and military officials.

“They understood that nuclear weapons should be eliminated. They said, however, that they could not stop developing nuclear weapons.

“They blamed the United States for failing to draft a clear schedule for abolishing their weapons. They said they have to develop nuclear bombs to protect themselves in the midst of the nuclear development competition with such neighboring countries as China and Pakistan,” Tsuboi recalled.

His visit inspired Indian activists to host Hiroshima City’s exhibition on atomic bombing, held in April and May, as India conducted its nuclear bomb tests.

The weapons have not been abolished, of course, and are still being developed because “human beings are so stupid,” Tsuboi said, as his facial expression suddenly became severe. “It is completely wrong to think that you can survive while attacking others.”

He managed to fight off pessimism, however.

“Every time I give a lecture, I am encouraged to keep talking,” he said, adding that audience reaction and boxes of thank-you letters give him the energy to soldier on.

“I do not intend to complete the task to abolish nuclear weapons myself. I carry it over to those who listen to me,” he said.

“I want to give talks until my last day. I probably say `Stop nuclear weapons!’ on my deathbed,” he laughed.