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Japan's atomic bomb survivors hope G-7 firms up support for nuclear disarmament

European Council President Charles Michel (from left), Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Emmanuel Macron, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a monument for atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima, Japan, Friday.
Stefan Rousseau
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AP
European Council President Charles Michel (from left), Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Emmanuel Macron, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a monument for atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima, Japan, Friday.

HIROSHIMA, Japan — As President Biden and the leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations gathered in Hiroshima, host nation Japan tried to use the powerful symbolism of the summit's setting — the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack — to draw the leaders into a consensus on global challenges.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on his first visit to Asia, came to the Hiroshima Peace Park on Sunday. In a statement, the G-7 leaders pledged in Hiroshima, a "symbol of peace," to strive for a "comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine" as soon as possible.

On Friday morning, Biden and the other G-7 leaders visited the Hiroshima Peace Park and the iconic "atomic bomb dome" near the center of the devastation which, on Aug. 6, 1945, left around 140,000 people dead.

They also spoke to a survivor and visited a museum at the park, all meant to convey the inhumanity of nuclear war.

Hiroshi Harada, the museum's former director who is a "hibakusha," as the atomic bomb survivors are known, says the exhibits cannot possibly tell the whole story.

"If we were to reproduce the situation of that time," he says, "no one, including myself, would be able to enter the museum."

The exhibits can reproduce sights and sounds, but not smells, he notes.

"The smell that 140,000 citizens emit when their bodies rot and are thrown under the blazing sun cannot be forgotten, even almost 80 years later," he says.

Harada, who was 6 years old in 1945, was preparing to flee the city when the United States dropped the bomb about a mile from where he was standing at Hiroshima's train station.

"Of course, there were heat rays and the blast," he recalls. "But I happened to be in the shadow of the station building, so miraculously, I survived."

Harada and other hibakusha, or survivors, share a lifelong ambition with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in parliament: to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

"I understand that he was listening to stories about the horrors of nuclear weapons from his grandmother, as a child," says Noriyuki Shikata, Cabinet secretary for public affairs.

A pall of smoke lingers over this scene of destruction in Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 7, 1945, a day after the explosion of the atomic bomb.
/ AP
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AP
A pall of smoke lingers over this scene of destruction in Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 7, 1945, a day after the explosion of the atomic bomb.

Given the mounting nuclear tensions among the U.S., Russia, China and North Korea, "it's very challenging to get rid of nuclear weapons all of a sudden," Shikata says. "But we can make various steps forward in terms of continuing to reduce the global stockpile of nuclear weapons and improving transparency surrounding our nuclear programs."

These measures are outlined in Japan's "Hiroshima Action Plan," which was referenced in a G-7 leaders' statement on the nuclear issue.

Hibakusha have called for Japan to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the use, possession, testing and transfer of nuclear arms. But Japan has refused to do so, as it is protected by U.S. nuclear weapons.

Japan's dilemma is that it must "rely on nuclear weapons for its security, even as it also has the kind of moral imperative to argue for disarmament based on its experience of having received nuclear damage," says Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A Kyodo News poll last month of 521 respondents who were directly affected by the bombing found that more than two-thirds did not believe the Hiroshima G-7 meeting would lead to significant process in eliminating nuclear weapons.

"Many hibakusha have been betrayed by our own government, many times," says Keiko Nakamura, associate professor at the Nagasaki University Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition.

Despite the hibakusha's disappointment, she adds, they welcome the chance the G-7 meeting affords to get their message out, and "they have hope that one day the Japanese government will listen to the real voice of the hibakusha and change their course."

Speaking by phone after the G-7 leaders' visit to the Peace Park, Harada, the former museum director, noted that the leaders only spoke to one survivor, and the full contents of their discussions have not been made public.

The leaders wrote messages in guestbooks at the museum, according to Japan's Foreign Ministry.

Harada says he read the messages, "but they were superficial. What we expect is not only their messages, but also their actions, after they return to their own countries."

Takehiro Masutomo contributed to this report in Tokyo and Hiroshima.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 21, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Hiroshi Harada's last name as Hirada.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.