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Govt needs to change attitude toward hibakusha

February 24, 2016

EDITORIAL: Government needs to drop its inflexible approach in recognizing ‘hibakusha’


The judiciary has challenged the government’s decades-long refusal to give “hibakusha” (A-bomb survivors) status to people who were outside the official “atomic-bombed areas” at the time of the 1945 nuclear attack on Nagasaki.

A group lawsuit was filed by 161 plaintiffs who experienced the atomic bombing in Nagasaki but have been denied government support as hibakusha because they were 7 to 12 kilometers from ground zero and outside the official “atomic-bombed areas.” The Nagasaki District Court on Feb. 22 recognized 10 of the plaintiffs as hibakusha.

When a system was set up in 1957 to provide official support to hibakusha, the central government designated atomic-bombed areas according to municipal boundaries of the time, and the areas were gradually expanded over time.

Although the Nagasaki court acknowledged only a small number of the plaintiffs as hibakusha, the ruling is of considerable significance.

The traditional system of sorting hibakusha and non-hibakusha just on the basis of whether they were inside or outside the demarcation lines was never reasonable. The government must revise this system to deal more flexibly with individual cases.

Theoretically, no initial radiation from the nuclear blast reached the locations where the plaintiffs were at the time of the bombing. But during the trial, much of the argument focused on the possibility that they suffered health damage from radioactive materials that were carried fairly long distances by dust and rain.

The government always maintained that any exposure to radiation should be negligible outside the atomic-bombed areas. However, the Nagasaki court ruled that, in consideration of internal radiation exposure from breathing and ingesting contaminated food and drink, it was possible for people to have been exposed to high-level radiation even in some areas outside the officially designated areas.

The court effectively urged the government to step out of its inflexible mind-set.

And based on data concerning the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the court indicated that 25 millisieverts--an equivalent of 10 years of exposure to radiation occurring in nature--as the level that causes health damage.

However, it would be difficult to use that level as a new yardstick for determining who are hibakusha and who are not.

Because World War II ended shortly after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, there is only a limited amount of research data available to estimate the levels of radiation the citizens of these cities were exposed to.

And legally, the status of hibakusha is not determined by radiation doses.

The reality of science today is that there are still many unknowns about the effects of nuclear bombs on the human body. Therefore, it is unreasonable of the government to refuse to acknowledge people as hibakusha unless they can present scientific proof.

We think the realistic approach would be to still use the atomic-bombed areas as a basic criterion but acknowledge anyone as hibakusha--unless there is irrefutable proof to the contrary--even if they were outside the designated areas at the time of the blast.

In Hiroshima, people who were exposed to radioactive “black rain” outside the designated areas went to court last autumn, demanding to be recognized as hibakusha. It is just too sad that survivors of the atomic bombings still have to fight the government 70 years after the war.

Older plaintiffs are dying. There is no time left. The government must take urgent action to put the matter to rest.

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