Hiroshima's Survivors

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This Saturday, many thousands of survivors of the Atomic Bomb dropped on Hiroshima will gather to commemorate the bomb's 60th anniversary.

Most still live in Hiroshima, but some have moved away, to other parts of Japan and other countries. About a thousand survivors live in the United States.

For US-based survivors, living in America has been a mixed blessing. Some have struggled with their own national identity; others have struggled with discrimination. Nearly all of them have run up against ignorance -even among doctors -- about the effects of radiation.

Like many Hiroshima survivors living in the United States, 73-year-old Teruko Morinaka is American by birth. She was born in Toledo, Ohio. When she was five, her Japanese father moved the family to Hiroshima. Her family survived the A-bomb - all of them except for one sister.

Morinaka returned to the US, five years later, with her new husband, a Japanese-American. When her mother-in-law heard that she was an A-bomb survivor, she told Morinaka to keep it quiet.

Teruko Morinaka: "When I came from Japan, that's the first thing she said, you know, because people think you're going to have crippled kids or whatever, so she was always telling me, don't ever say anybody."

As it turns out, her kids are fine, but Morinaka has herself had chronic ailments probably related to radiation exposure- intense heat rashes, kidney failure, long-term fatigue.

But as she gets older and her health declines, it's tougher to figure out what's the cause is.

Teruko Morinaka: "You kind of wonder you know, is this from just I'm getting old, or is it sickness from - from atomic bomb?"

Four years ago, the Japanese government began assisting survivors like Morninaka who were living abroad. The help began after a Korean survivor won a discrimination suit, compelling Japanese authorities to pay monthly medical allowances to overseas survivors.

Now, it seemed, A-bomb survivors living in the US and elsewhere would be treated the same way as their counterparts in Japan.

But Morinaka wasn't so sure. To apply for those medical benefits, she'd still have to travel to Hiroshima - 13 hours flying time from Los Angeles, a daunting journey for any sick, elderly person. So Morinaka brought her own lawsuit, arguing that she should be able to apply for her benefits in the U.S. Her action puzzled a relative who lives in Hiroshima and is also a survivor.

Teruko Morinaka: "He says "hey did you sue the Hiroshima mayor?" I says "I have a reason. You people all taken care in Japan. Anytime you go to the doctor you don't have to pay a penny out your pocket. But we have to stay in a hotel, eating outside. It's not that easy when you getting old, you know, it's not easy for us." So he understood. He says "I don't know why they treat you like an outsider."

Earlier this year, Morinaka won her case, but the government is appealing.

The fact that Japanese authorities are still resisting helping survivors living in America confirms what many Japanese-American survivors have believed for years - that they are on their own.

In Hiroshima in 1945, most lost family members. Then, they lost the support of their countries - Japan and the United States.

Mitsuo Tomozawa, a US citizen born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, puts it this way:

Mitsuo Tomozawa: "I felt that Japan was my mother country and US was my father country. So I felt real bad that my father and mother are fighting. Then the war ended, now we tried to get help from the father country and the mother country. Neither of them would offer any help."

In the decades after the war, the Japanese government didn't want anything to do with survivors who had left for the U.S. And the U.S. government had negotiated an agreement with the Japanese, absolving it of any responsibility for bomb victims.

Also disheartening for survivors was the not-so-subtle message to keep quiet and not complain. Mitsuo Tomozawa recalls that when one group of California survivors tried to publicize their plight, the Japanese-American establishment didn't like it.

Mitsuo Tomozawa: "They were accused by the Japanese community leaders - "you guys shut up. you talk about A-bombing and radiation, the whole Japanese community going to be discriminated against." So they were told "Don't rock the boat."

That was the Japanese way. It still is, in many quarters. But gradually, America's confessional culture has rubbed off on a few US-based survivor, especially, says Tomozawa, when it comes to talking about their memories of the A-bomb.

Mitsuo Tomozawa: "Survivors here in the United States still have the reluctance to speak about it, but not as much as people in Japan, see. Japanese culture says you don't talk about that, you're supposed to say "can't be helped," let's not talk about the past, look in the future and so forth, but in United States we tend to think more "we'd better speak up and let people know what happened there."

Today there are other reasons that survivors here have for not talking about their Hiroshima experiences - American reasons, like the fear that health insurance plans might not cover treatment for illnesses related to radiation exposure.

But in the subdivisions of some Los Angeles neighborhoods, some people well into their 70s do draw on their painful memories. Green tea is being consumed almost by the gallon in this LA home. Two survivors of the A-bomb are here, chatting about a local Japanese bakery.

Soon the conversation turns to Hiroshima, to sickness and to the cost of care. Teruko Namura is 78.

Teruko Namura: "It's not that cheap the medication I'm taking. 80-something dollars. Plus the high blood pressure pill and the thyroid pill. It adds up, you know."

As a registered A-bomb survivor, Namura receives a medical allowance from the Japanese government. She's relatively healthy, so it wasn't a problem for her to travel to Hiroshima to apply for the benefit.

Returning there brought back old memories, which hurt, but - as Namura says - would hurt even more if she didn't speak of them. So, she and her survivor friend talk about Hiroshima and what they saw on August 6th 1945.

Teruko Namura: "You look outside - oh! bombed and then you see a big fire, and all the smoke like a mushroom you know. And then you see outside there's a lot of people with all raggedy clothes and their skins and their hair all like that, and you see like a ghost!"

Namura's most painful memory is of an encounter she had a few hours after the bomb hit. It was with a group of those ghost-like people. They came to the school where she was working, seeking help from the staff.

Teruko Namura: "They wanted to have water so bad. But when we were young we were told that if you drink too much water when you have the burn you'll die or it's not good for your health, so we try not to give them. But later on, I wish I'd gave them because they were going to die anyway, you know? I wish I gave them a little bit of water."

Many survivors have recollections like those.moments in the bomb's aftermath when they wished they'd done more.

These are not memories that fade easily with age.

But for the people who have chosen to speak about them, the memories may be a little more bearable.