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For A-bomb survivors, pandemic silences decades of storytelling

Hiroshima memorial museum resorts to streaming testimonials as coronavirus cancels events

Pedestrians pass by the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.   © Kyodo

HIROSHIMA -- April and May are usually busy months for Hiroshi Harada, 80, who for decades has been telling his tale of surviving an atomic bombing to schoolchildren, hoping to preserve the devastation he witnessed in people's collective memory.

But this year, the pandemic has upended that routine for Harada and other atomic-bomb survivors. 

Even as the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches this summer, concerns about the coronavirus have forced schools around the nation to cancel class trips to the two cities.

"This is usually a busy time for us," said Harada. "I've never seen anything like this."

Harada, a former director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, was 6 years old when the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. He was inside Hiroshima Station, 2 km away from ground zero, that morning, and the sturdy structure protected him from a direct hit from the blast.

He was scheduled to give his testimonial to students and foreign tourists 15 or so times in April and again in May. Each event was either canceled or pushed back. As of May 25, more than 700 testimonials by survivors at the museum and elsewhere had been canceled or postponed.

"The 75th anniversary of the end of the war was an opportunity to capture the interest of many people," Harada said. "I'm totally disappointed."

The museum has been shut down since the end of February, with plans to reopen it June 1.

The museum welcomed 4,597 tour groups in the fiscal year ended March. Among them were 324,653 elementary to high schoolers on class trips. But in 2020, more than 100 group tours have been cancelled or postponed.

Sixth graders from Kokumei Elementary School in suburban Osaka planned to visit the museum in late May but now intend to go in early September. The school's plan is to have sixth graders share with younger students the testimonials they heard from survivors of the Hiroshima blast.

"I want to protect a learning opportunity, but I don't know what would happen if a second wave of infections occurs," Kokumei's principal said.

The average age of survivors has pushed past 82. "I wish for the [coronavirus pandemic] to end as quickly as possible so that we can start telling our personal stories to as many people as possible," Harada said.

Visitors crowd the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Okinawa Prefecture in this file photo from 2009.   © Kyodo

As an alternative, the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, which runs the peace museum, has been streaming survivors' testimonials since March 27.

Videos of 34 survivors have been recorded at the museum since the spring of 2019 in a project to preserve the oral history for the next generation. The original plan was to play them on-site and elsewhere, but the pandemic pushed the foundation into streaming.

Nagasaki's atomic bomb museum has been closed since April 10 but is scheduled to reopen June 1 following the lifting of the state of emergency. But "because we were shut down during the school trip season, children lost an opportunity to learn," a museum representative said.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council canceled all of the 100 or so lectures by survivors that it had scheduled through July.

"The victims are aging, so we can't simply say 'next year,'" said Fumie Kakita, secretary-general.

Okinawa will significantly scale back this year's June 23 memorial ceremony for those killed in the Battle of Okinawa. The Himeyuri Peace Museum, set to reopen June 1, has seen about 380 school trips postponed or canceled between March and June.

Additional reporting by Aya Takahashi and Hiroshi Asahina.

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