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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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A-Bomb Survivors Wait for Care

Jul. 31, 2015

People who survived the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 face unique challenges as they age. The average age of the survivors, known as Hibakusha, is now over 80. There are special nursing homes for them in the two cities. But the facilities have long waiting lists.

Ikuyo Takeshita is 87-years-old. She arrived in Hiroshima at age 17, just three days after the atomic bomb was dropped. She was later diagnosed as having been exposed to radiation. Three years ago, Takeshita developed cancer. She also suffers from chronic heart disease. She is seeking a place in a nursing home for atomic bomb survivors.

"I got sick and old,” Takeshita said. “It’s lonely being alone here.”

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945 led to Japan’s surrender and the end of the Pacific War. The bombings killed more than 200,000 people in both cities. Tens-of-thousands of others have been plagued by lingering health problems. As of March, 2015, there were 183,500 recognized atomic bomb survivors.

Nursing homes for Hibakusha are subsidized by the national and local governments so costs for residents are low. The residents also receive medical support including regular visits from specialized physicians. Living in the homes allows the survivors to feel a sense of community among themselves.

For the last three decades, one nursing home has been publishing the memoirs of the victims’ experiences. To date, 388 residents have contributed, and seven volumes have been published.

The home holds “storytelling” events where the Hibakusha can share their experiences with visiting children.

"The river was colored red, it wasn’t the color of water,” an 86-year-old woman recalls. “We must never go to war again, please."

The home is a place where people who have been through the same experience can pass their final years in serenity while quietly campaigning for peace. But there are only four such nursing facilities in Hiroshima and two in Nagasaki. Altogether, the facilities can house 1,005 people. But there are 2,800 people on the waiting list.

Officials in the Hiroshima city government have told Takeshita that she will have to wait as long as six years for a spot to open up. At 87, she cannot hide her worry.

"I’m still able to live independently, but when I can no longer do so, I want to go into a nursing home,” Takeshita said. “I’m willing myself to do my best."

Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu spoke with NHK reporter Yohei Komuro about aging atomic bomb survivors and the problems they face.

Beppu: Yohei, why do atomic-bomb survivors need special care facilities? Why can’t they just use regular ones?

Komuro: Many of them lost family members and friends in the bombing. They’ve had especially hard lives because they suffer from symptoms caused by radiation exposure. They need a place where they can share their experiences with people like them, where they can support each other. Such facilities are also necessary so they can tell children about their ordeal. They can also receive government subsidies at such care facilities. So their living expenses are about half of what they would be at regular nursing homes. Many of the survivors suffer from leukemia and thyroid-related illnesses caused by exposure to radiation. They often develop multiple cancers. These special facilities have doctors who can treat atomic-bomb survivors, or they can call outside specialists. So survivors can receive speedy and appropriate medical treatment.

Beppu: We heard about the case of Mrs. Takeshita. She has to wait six years before she can get into a facility. How is the government handling cases like this?

Komuro: In Hiroshima, there are about 2,400 people on the waiting list. But in the last fiscal year only 100 or so found places at these special facilities. Their capacity is limited. Welfare Ministry officials say they have no plans to build new special facilities for atomic-bomb survivors because there’s not enough money. They’re looking at the idea of asking some survivors to enter existing facilities, like those for people with dementia. They would receive subsidies like those received by atomic-bomb survivors who live in special facilities. But that doesn’t really solve the problem.

Shibuya: We ran a report last month that showed there are still many people waiting to receive special certificates that recognize them as atomic bomb survivors. When we look at what’s happening at those special facilities, we can’t ignore survivors who don’t receive any government support.

Komuro: More than 183,500 people had been certified as atomic-bomb survivors as of March this year. But there could be many others who haven’t received certificates. Many show the same symptoms as their parents. Or they find out later that they were exposed to radiation. They apply for certificates, but often find it hard to prove that they are actually atomic-bomb survivors. Unlike certified survivors, these people can’t receive support like exemptions from medical costs. The average age of atomic-bomb survivors is now over 80. In this 70th anniversary year of the atomic-bombings, we need to figure out how to help survivors who have been left behind.