Sunao Tsuboi, a champion of the anti-nuclear movement, has died at age 96. He had served as a representative member of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations and chairman of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations. For many years, Tsuboi led nuclear disarmament activism and dedicated his life to calling for a world without nuclear weapons, while telling himself and others to “never give up.”
Tsuboi himself was a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He continued to share his experience, revealing the inhumaneness of nuclear arms.
Tsuboi was exposed to radiation near the bomb’s hypocenter when the U.S. dropped it on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. At the time he was 20 years old. He was severely burned, and for some 40 days remained in a life-or-death condition, struggling to survive. Though suffering from aftereffects, Tsuboi became a teacher at junior high school where he talked about the destruction brought by the atomic bomb to his students, calling himself the “Pika-don teacher,” a reference used for the bomb at the time, with “pika” meaning “flash” and “don” meaning “boom.”
Through activities abroad after his retirement, Tsuboi said he started seeing nuclear issues as challenges confronting humanity as a whole. He visited 21 countries including the United States and nations in Europe, as well as nuclear arms holders Pakistan, China and North Korea, and continued to call out, “No more hibakusha (A-bomb survivors)” at international conferences.
It was because Tsuboi and other hibakusha persistently shared stories about their experiences outside Japan that the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons became widely known across the world. And this led to the enforcement of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans nuclear arms and related activities.
When then U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to do so in May 2016, Tsuboi said to him, “It (dropping the atomic bomb) was one of the mistakes humanity made. We have to overcome that, and head for the future.”
These words stemmed from Tsuboi’s desire for peace, based on his belief that hatred is fruitless.
Grave challenges still remain after Tsuboi’s departure.
International situations are difficult. There are now some 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world. The United States’ discord with China and Russia continues, with an end to competition for nuclear expansion nowhere in sight.
Japan has not joined the nuclear weapons ban treaty, citing its place under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. While Japan flatters itself as a bridge between nuclear powers and non-nuclear states, it has failed to fulfill its role as the only country to have been struck with atomic bombs as acts of war.
The number of hibakusha has now declined to about 127,000 and their average age is approaching 84. Anti-nuclear activist and hibakusha Sumiteru Taniguchi, who led the movement in Nagasaki, the second city to be bombed in 1945, passed away in 2017. We will eventually enter a time when there are no hibakusha left in the world.
“An uphill path may continue, but I’m not going to give up and I’ll continue working on eliminating these dreadful weapons from the world,” Tsuboi once said. Succeeding generations must take the baton from him.