Keisaburo Toyonaga helps Koreans and other non-Japanese atom bomb survivors

Though Japanese himself, he's spent decades aiding non-Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Keisaburo Toyonaga, seen in front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Japan, helps non-Japanese survivors of the atomic blasts.

Keisaburo Toyonaga fumed when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his speech here two years ago that Japanese are “the only people” to have suffered from an atomic bombing.

The hawkish leader’s words at the anniversaries of the 1945 US bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted Mr. Toyonaga and others to lodge a strong protest. There were foreigners living in Japan at the time who also suffered, they said.

Mr. Abe did not use the phrase in speeches marking last year’s anniversaries.

Toyonaga, a longtime crusader for Korean survivors of the atomic bombings, says Abe’s remarks were insensitive because tens of thousands of Koreans and other non-Japanese living in those cities were also killed and injured.

About 30,000 Koreans died in the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, nearly 20 percent of the total deaths, estimates his group, the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims. Chinese, American, and European POWs were also among the dead and injured in the attacks, explains the diminutive Toyonaga, himself a survivor of the atomic blast at Hiroshima.

For more than four decades, Toyonaga has been campaigning on behalf of Korean and other foreign survivors since he came to learn that they had not received any assistance from the Japanese government.

“Mr. Toyonaga was among the first who came to learn the plight of Korean victims and became very active,” says Haruko Moritaki, a Hiroshima-based board member of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.

Why were so many Koreans victims of the atomic bombing? Toyonaga is asked.

“Many Koreans had no choice but to come to Japan because of their hardships under Japanese colonial rule” before and during World War II, Toyonaga says. “Many were forcibly brought to Japan to work at munitions factories or to fight for the country as a soldier.

“Once the war was over, the Japanese government left those victims uncared for. It has only gradually started to provide assistance after losing lawsuits.”

Seventy years ago on Aug. 6, 1945, the US bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands of people instantly; by the end of the year, some 140,000 people had died as a result of the bomb and its aftereffects. Three days later, on Aug. 9, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki; about 74,000 people died.

The bombing of Hiroshima resulted in Toyonaga transferring to a school near a Korean community on the outskirts of the city. He became friends with a Korean student and eventually visited his house.

“I got nervous when walking into their community,” Toyonaga recalls. “We did not think it was a place where Japanese people should go.” The houses were surrounded by trash dumps and pigpens, and Toyonaga recalls seeing crushing poverty.

After graduating from college, Toyonaga taught at a local high school, where he noticed Korean students were using Japanese names to avoid discrimination.

Many of the Korean students excelled, and their parents had high expectations for them. However, “major companies refused to hire them” despite the fact that Japan was in a period of rapid economic growth, Toyonaga says.

Toyonaga exhorted companies to hire Korean students, and some of them finally did – on the condition that the Koreans kept using a Japanese name, he says.

That experience led Toyonaga, along with other teachers, to promote antidiscrimination education in the region. Their initiatives were brought to the attention of the South Korean government, and the group was invited to visit Seoul, the South Korean capital, in 1971.

On the eve of their flight to South Korea, Toyonaga happened to watch a television program in his hotel room that featured Shin Yong Su, a Korean survivor of the atomic attack, who had come to Japan to publicize the plight of his fellow ethnic Korean victims.

Unlike many Japanese, Toyonaga was aware of the existence of Korean atomic bomb survivors. However, he had rarely heard about the hardships they encountered after they returned home to Korea. So Mr. Shin’s plea made him interested in visiting with Korean survivors during his trip.

When Toyonaga managed to meet Shin’s group in Seoul, he was shocked by their distressing circumstances. “I was welcomed by its members. But there were only four to five people in a shack, and the group kept a very low profile” under the military regime that ruled South Korea at that time. “They could not even ask for support from their government.”

Returning from the trip, Toyonaga joined a citizens group in Osaka, Japan, set up that year to support Korean survivors. He established a branch in Hiroshima in 1974.

Under the 1957 Act on Medical Care for Atomic Bomb Survivors, the Japanese government provided a free medical checkup to survivors of the bombings and covered the costs of their medical care. Many had chronic illnesses caused by exposure to radiation. But foreign survivors were not eligible for compensation.

Korean victim Son Jin Doo entered Japan illegally in 1970 to receive medical treatment and then sued the Japanese government in 1972 for compensation, as he wanted a survivor’s certificate that would designate him as “hibakusha,” an official survivor of the atomic bombing.

In a landmark ruling in 1978, the Supreme Court of Japan decided that a medical certificate had to be provided to Mr. Son. But the decision prompted the Health Ministry to add conditions. It required foreign survivors to come to Japan to receive a certificate, which was not valid if they then left Japan.

“How many people do you think could afford to come to Japan and receive medical treatment?” Toyonaga asks.

Toyonaga, along with other activists and lawyers, has helped foreign survivors receive certificates without such conditions through a series of lawsuits.

In 2002, the Osaka High Court decided the conditions should be abolished. In 2007, Japan’s Supreme Court found the Japanese government liable for damage resulting from the conditions. Foreign survivors were each given 1 million yen in compensation (just over $8,000 today).

So far more than 3,000 atomic bomb survivors outside Japan have received a certificate and compensation, Toyonaga says.

In May 2015, at the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty held at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, Korean survivor Shim Jin-tae demanded that Japan apologize and further compensate Korean survivors. Mr. Shim also said the United States should apologize for developing and using the atomic bombs.

“Korean victims would certainly think the US should also pay reparation and medical costs,” Toyonaga says. “I personally would like President Obama to come to Hiroshima and apologize for the bombing.”

Toyonaga has long been supporting Korean survivors “whose rights have been trampled on,” Ms. Moritaki says.

In 2011, the South Korean government honored Toyonaga for his years of service.

“Mr. Toyonaga has spent decades working very hard on [behalf of] atomic bomb victims who live abroad. I’ve learned a great deal from him,” says Sunao Tsuboi, co-chairman of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations.

A few years ago, Toyonaga and other activists flew to Taiwan and helped Taiwanese survivors of the atomic bombings launch their own survivors’ association.

The effects of the atomic bombs linger on, Toyonaga says. “We have to contemplate Japan’s wartime responsibility.”

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