HIROSHIMA – For nearly 70 years, until he turned 85, Lee Jong-keun hid his past as an atomic bomb survivor, fearful of the widespread discrimination against blast victims that has long persisted in Japan.
But Lee, 92, is now part of a fast-dwindling group of survivors, known as hibakusha, that feels a growing urgency — desperation even — to tell their stories. These last witnesses to what happened 75 years ago this Thursday want to reach a younger generation that they feel is losing sight of the horror.
The knowledge of their dwindling time — the average age of the survivors is more than 83 and many suffer from the long-lasting effects of radiation — is coupled with deep frustration over stalled progress in global efforts to ban nuclear weapons. According to a recent Asahi newspaper survey of 768 survivors, nearly two-thirds said their wish for a nuclear-free world is not widely shared by the rest of humanity, and more than 70% called on a reluctant Japanese government to ratify a nuclear weapons ban treaty.
“We must work harder to get our voices heard, not just mine but those of many other survivors," Lee said in an interview Tuesday at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “A nuclear weapons ban is the starting point for peace.”
“All lives are equal,” he added. ”As someone who has faced harsh discrimination, that's the other lesson I want to pass on to younger people."
The first U.S. atomic bombing killed 140,000 people in the city of Hiroshima. A second atomic attack on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, killed another 70,000. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, bringing an end to a conflict that began with its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 during its attempt to conquer Asia.
Some 20,000 ethnic Korean residents of Hiroshima are believed to have died in the nuclear attack. The city, a wartime military hub, had a large number of Korean workers, including those forced to work without pay at mines and factories under Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, 16-year-old Lee, a second-generation Korean born in Japan, was on his way to work at Japan’s national railway authority in Hiroshima when the uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy exploded. The whole sky turned yellowish orange, knocking him face first to the ground, Lee said. He suffered severe burns on his neck that took four months to heal.