BY PATTI IIYAMA
HIROSHIMA, Japan - At an international symposium held during the week leading up to the August 6 ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of this city, many survivors testified to their continuing health problems. They also detailed the obstacles they face in obtaining compensation from the Japanese government.
The hibakusha (survivors) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are living testimony to the terrors of the atomic bomb used against civilians. According to Nihon Hidankyo, the Confederation of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferers, more than 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki had died from the bombings by the end of 1945.
Shock waves from the explosion leveled all houses within 1.25 miles from ground zero. Most of those indoors were crushed under the destroyed buildings or burned alive by the ensuing firestorm. Window glass shattered, sending shards in all directions. The Hiroshima Peace Museum notes that even today, some survivors are having pieces of glass removed from their bodies.
Sixty-five percent of those killed on the day of the bombing in Hiroshima were elderly people, women, and children. More than one quarter were teenage boys and girls who had been mobilized on August 6 for outdoor work, demolishing buildings to create fire lanes. Around 40 percent of those who died in both cities were never found. They evaporated into thin air, burned into ashes, or were carried out to sea when they stumbled into the rivers for water.
Others died slower deaths from leukemia, melanoma, or lung, breast, esophagus, bladder, liver, or other types of cancer. By 1985, some 296,000 hibakusha had died, according to the Japanese ministry of health and welfare. Today there are 328,000 hibakusha still trying to cope with a wide range of physical and mental difficulties that are aggravated as they grow older.
There were also an unknown number of Korean victims, who are not included in the official figures of dead and wounded. One million were forcibly kidnapped from Korea to work as virtual slaves in Japan. Thousands were working in war-related factories in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Korean War memorial, belatedly erected at the edge of the Hiroshima Peace Park, states that 10 percent of the casualties were Korean.
The number may never be known, since the Japanese government did not consider the Koreans important enough to count. None of the Korean victims has received any form of compensation. Although the Japanese government has promised to build seven centers in Korea to treat the Korean hibakusha, only one is currently under construction.
The full extent of damage to the populations and the cities was kept a strict secret by both the Japanese government and then by U.S. officials. The U.S. occupation forces that ruled Japan after Tokyo's defeat banned even records and pictures of the damage caused by the A-bomb. They tried to minimize and conceal the damage by claiming that no one suffered from the after-effects of the bomb. It was not until the occupation ended in 1952 that most Japanese workers and farmers began to learn the true extent of the injuries people suffered.
Even so, the hibakusha were left to fend for themselves for 12 years after the bomb was dropped. Not only were they disfigured physically and psychologically by their ordeal, but they were shunned by the rest of Japanese society. As Takeshi Ito, co-chairperson of Nihon Hidankyo, pointed out at the symposium, it was difficult for hibakusha and their children to marry, because many Japanese were afraid of the genetic effects of radiation on future generations.
Compensation for hibakusha
Finally, in 1957 the Hibakusha Health Law was passed, followed in 1968 by the Law on Special Measures for the A- Bomb Victims. These laws were combined in December 1994 in the Hibakusha Aid Law. The "aid" is deceptive, for the laws have helped few hibakusha.
Compensation for hibakusha
While medical benefits are provided by law, there are big limitations. Only those exposed to a high level of radiation are eligible. Those suffering from diseases that have been proven to be possibly caused by radiation (such as cancer) are excluded if the victim was exposed to a relatively low level of radiation.
External injuries, such as a facial injury and blindness, are virtually excluded, since the hibakusha have to prove their injuries were caused by radiation effects on their wounds.
Even if the applicant's disease is recognized as falling under the "special medical care allowance," the duration of the allowance is limited. In addition, the hibakusha have to present two witnesses to substantiate their claims. It is increasingly difficult to do so 50 years after the event.
Not surprisingly, only 1 percent of the survivors have become certified and entitled to benefits under these laws. Nihon Hidankyo is demanding that these limitations be lifted so that all of the remaining hibakusha can receive the medical care that is their due.
Patti Iiyama had relatives who were killed by the bombing of Hiroshima. She is a member of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 4-227 in Houston.
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