20160805 The forgotten orphans of the Hiroshima bombing

Since US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima in May, the number of visitors to the city has soared. But one survivor of the World War II atomic bombing says people are still unaware of the fate of thousands of children who were orphaned by the attack.

Hiroshima (dpa) – For more than a decade, Shoso Kawamoto, a survivor of the US atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, has been telling the “untold story” of the nuclear attack on August 6, 1945.

Visitors to the city’s Peace Memorial Museum come to learn about the bombing, which had killed around 140,000 people by the end of 1945.

“But nobody knows about thousands of orphans like me,” Kawamoto said.

Kawamato lost his parents and four of his six siblings in the atomic attack when he was just 11.

Following the devastation, some orphans died of starvation and many girls were sold to the Yakuza [organized crime syndicate] to work as prostitutes, Kawamoto said.

“We were desperate for survival, desperate for food,” the 82-year-old museum volunteer recalled. “Some orphans assaulted whoever had food and snatched it from their hand.”

Orphans did not receive any support during the chaos of the postwar period, so they had no choice other than to work for the Yakuza, who came to Hiroshima and started taking care of them, he said.

Kawamoto said he was one of the few lucky ones, as he was fostered out to a family who ran a soy sauce factory in a neighbouring town.

“They told me, ‘If you work hard, we will build a house for you,’” he recalled.

So, he did and got a house at the age of 23 and dated a girl for three years. When Kawamoto met her parents to ask for permission to marry her, they refused.

“They told me I am a hibakusha (an atomic bomb victim), contaminated with radiation. So, we would have a disabled baby if we got married,” he said.

“I was torn,” he said. “I stormed out of the town and started working under the Yakuza in Hiroshima.”

He eventually moved on to Okayama city, 150 kilometres to east, without telling anyone he was from Hiroshima for fear of discrimination.

After working at a noodle shop and a company canteen for years, Kawamoto founded a small food company and became president.

He returned to Hiroshima aged 70 and has worked as a “peace volunteer” at the museum ever since.

Kawamoto was not impressed by US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima in May.

“How could you understand the atomic bombing by just looking around here for only 10 minutes?” he asked, referring to the amount of time Obama spent at the museum.

Obama, who became the first incumbent US president to visit the site of the attack, commemorated the atomic bomb victims alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Obama should have come to Hiroshima soon after he was given a Nobel Peace Prize, but he finally did just before leaving office. He just wanted a stage to cap his career,” Kawamoto said.

The US president was awarded the prize in 2009, in part for his vision of a nuclear-free world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s visit has helped Hiroshima attract more visitors. The number of visitors to the museum has jumped 40 per cent from a year earlier.

Masanobu Murakami, an official at the city’s peace promotion division, said they wanted to attract more visitors from abroad.

“It is important that more people come to understand the miseries of the atomic bombing and the necessity of nuclear abolition,” Murakami said.

“I’d like more world leaders to come to Hiroshima to try to grasp the tragedy,” Kawamoto said.

“[The experience] will help them spend more money on children’s education rather than on weapons to kill other human beings.”