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Society

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years on

Voices from two devastated cities still ring out, with power and relevance

Hiroshima's Atomic Bomb Dome. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

OSAKA/HIROSHIMA -- This week marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the world's first nuclear attacks that obliterated hundreds of thousands of people. As the number of survivors dwindles, the two cities remain steadfast in their efforts to keep the story of the horrific destruction alive.

The U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 and followed three days later with an attack on Nagasaki. At the time, Hiroshima had a population of 350,000 and Nagasaki 240,000. By the end of that year, an estimated 140,000 people had perished in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.

The bombs targeting the cities -- both nominal military sites -- destroyed nine out of 10 buildings in Hiroshima and well over a third in Nagasaki. Now, with people born after the end of the war comprising over 80% of Japan's population, few with firsthand experience of the devastation remain.

However, voices from the two cities still ring out, having lost none of their power and relevance.

Japan is the only country that has ever suffered a nuclear attack. Many of those who survived, known as hibakusha, experienced severe health problems caused by radiation like leukemia and other cancers. About 500,000 have died of bomb-related causes as of August 2019, according to Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials.

Local communities have worked to preserve the few remaining buildings as testaments to atomic horrors. Hiroshima has recognized 86 structures, including the iconic Atomic Bomb Dome and a former factory producing military uniforms and boots. Nagasaki has recognized 123, among them former Shiroyama Elementary School.

But many of the remaining structures are at risk of being torn down, due to their age and urban development. Both cities have seen a roughly 10% decrease in designated sites from their peak, despite strong local support for their preservation.

More importantly, instead of nearing the goal of nuclear disarmament sought by survivors, the world has greatly expanded its nuclear capability since 1945.

The Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University compiles annual estimates of nuclear weapons held by each country, based on official data and academic research. According to the count released in June, there are about 13,410 nuclear warheads worldwide, of which Russia and the U.S. together account for 90%.

Moscow holds the largest share with 6,370, including 812 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 560 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Washington ranks second with 5,800 warheads, 400 ICBMs and 900 SLBMs.

In third was China, which boosted defense spending 6.6% in 2020 from the previous year to 1.26 trillion yuan ($181 billion). North Korea is believed to have 35 nuclear warheads -- a number that experts believe is still growing.

By presenting a full picture of the global nuclear stockpile, "we want people to understand that the nuclear threat is not a thing of the past," says Keiko Nakamura, associate professor at the center.

The number of warheads worldwide has fallen about 20% from 2013, when the center began the survey. Still, a single U.S. ICBM is said to be more than 20 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

An atomic mushroom cloud billows over Hiroshima in 1945, right, and the aftereffects of the blast show a demolished city. The site of the now Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was largely spared since the blast came from directly overhead. (Photos by U.S. Army via the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened in August 1955 with a mission to educate future generations about the destructive force of the atomic bomb through testimonies and the belongings of victims. Roughly 115,000 people had visited the museum that year. This has vastly increased, reaching a record of nearly 1.76 million in fiscal 2019. In addition to the over 300,000 students who come on school trips every year, foreign tourists have made up a large part of the figure in recent years.

About 520,000 -- or 30% of the museum's visitors -- came from abroad in fiscal 2019, making it one of Japan's top-ranked destinations on TripAdvisor. In contrast, visitors to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum have declined about 40% from when it first opened in fiscal 1996 to about 690,000 last year.

Both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums temporarily closed their doors earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has since reopened, allowing up to 3,000 visitors a day, or about 60% of usual levels. It is unclear when traffic from abroad will recover.

The number of people still keeping a hibakusha booklet -- a document that identifies A-bomb survivors and entitles holders to benefits -- stood at 136,682 in March, down 60% from its peak of 372,264 in fiscal 1980, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The average age of these hibakusha is now 83. As they grow older, the organizations that have supported them are gradually being disbanded.

The atomic bomb cloud seen from Koyagi, Nagasaki, right, and the city's Urakami Cathedral soon after the atomic bombing. (Courtesy of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum)

Hiroshima Prefecture has 62,000 hibakusha while Nagasaki Prefecture has 36,000. The two prefectures combine for 70% of the total. About 4,700 hibakusha live in Tokyo and 4,500 in Osaka Prefecture.

Local governments issue the handbook to bomb survivors, who fall under one of the following categories: (1) directly exposed to radiation; (2) entered Hiroshima or Nagasaki within the two weeks of the bombings; (3) involved in relief efforts; (4) exposed to radiation as an unborn child.

Booklet holders receive state subsidies to cover health care, nursing care and funerals.

In fiscal 2019, the central government set aside about 125.3 billion yen ($1.18 billion) as financial support to hibakusha. A portion of this includes monthly health care payments of 140,000 yen to those suffering illness due to exposure to radiation. In order to be eligible, people need to have their claims verified by experts from the Health Ministry.

A landscape of near-total destruction in Hiroshima was revealed in this photo taken by the U.S. military in November 1945. (Photo by U.S. Army via the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)

About 7,000 hibakusha were covered by the program as of the end of March, but some have had to file lawsuits after having been denied coverage.

Meanwhile, witnesses to firsthand recollections of people who experienced the bombings, known as shogensha, are struggling to continue due to their own advanced ages. This has birthed a new generation of even younger memory keepers, or denshosha, who are trying to maintain continuity.

Hiroshima started a program in fiscal 2012 to ensure that the thoughts of survivors will remain for future generations. The city now has 150 denshosha while Nagasaki, which launched a similar program in 2014, has 37. In order to become a memory keeper in Hiroshima, a person must undergo three years of training to acquire oratory skills as well as detailed knowledge about what hibakusha went through. This new breed of memory keepers related the atomic bombings to about 16,000 elementary and junior high school students in fiscal 2018.

A junior high school in Nagasaki lies in ruins after the blast. (Courtesy of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum)

The ages of denshosha vary widely, from teenagers to those in their 80s. But people in their 30s or younger represent only 4% of the memory keepers in Hiroshima and 32% in Nagasaki, amplifying the need to train more lest the bombings become forgotten.

The number of shogensha in Hiroshima fell to 40 in 2020, down 20% from a peak five years earlier. In Nagasaki, the number shrank to 43, down by four from fiscal 2018.

Preserving the memories of hibakusha is becoming more urgent as they and their witnesses succumb to age, and a much younger generation has yet to pick up the slack.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a speech at the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima on Thursday, said, "I pledge to do my utmost to realize a world without nuclear weapons and everlasting peace." Lacking from his speech was any reference to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Nikkei deputy editor Nozomu Ogawa and Nikkei staff photographers Yoshiyuki Tamai and Tomoki Mera contributed to this report.

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