Korean A-Bomb Survivors Speak Out

Among the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are the discriminated minority of ethnic Koreans in Japan. Many were forced to hide their identity after the attack. A survivor just opened up a few years ago to tell his story.

A Life of Suffering the A-bomb and Discrimination

89-year-old Lee Jongkeun speaks to students about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing.

"I saw a lot of people under a bridge with burns, and their skin was even falling off. I thought if there's a hell in this world, it could be here. They couldn't stand up, and they said to me, "Please give me water. Please help me."

Lee has only recently begun to share his story.

His parents are from the Korean Peninsula. They moved to Hiroshima when he was two years old. Growing up Korean in Japan, he faced constant discrimination.

"An old man in my neighborhood forced me to stand on the street so he could urinate on me," he recalls. "I didn't know why he would do such a thing to me. I cried and could not fight back."

At the age of 14, Lee got a job with the national railway service. He pretended to be Japanese.

Two years later, he was on his way to work when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

"I dove to the ground and covered my eyes, ears and nose with my hands. I stayed there a while. When I opened my eyes, I couldn't see anything. I was in complete darkness"

After the bombing , Lee suffered with maggots breeding in the wounds on his head and head. He lived with this condition for 5 months. His mother would pick out the maggots while crying. He'll never forget her words at the time. "I can't get them off," she said. "The only way for you to escape this pain is to die."

After a long recovery he returned to work, only to face a new type of discrimination as an atomic bomb survivor. Known in Japan as hibakusha, they were shunned by others who feared exposure to radiation might be contagious. Lee was forced to quit his job.

He eventually started his own business and married a fellow ethnic Korean. They started a family, but for decades, Lee kept his Korean and Hibakusha past a secret.

A Turning Point

At age 83, all that changed. Lee had heard about a group called the Peace Boat that travels the world spreading the message of peace. He thought this might be something for him.

To board the ship, he needed his passport, and with that came the story of who he really is.

"It makes me feel good that people listen to my story, not disguised as Japanese, but as a genuine Korean."

Now, after all the years of silence, he can't stop talking. At a high school in Hiroshima, he takes part in a special project. Students are gathered to hear the stories of Hibakusha and draw pictures of their experiences.

This picture painted by a student this year shows the moment the bomb was dropped. Lee said a strong orange light had covered the whole city.

"The day had started with a beautiful morning, then changed completely to this color," he said. "I immediately thought this was not normal."

Sayaka Sone, a student at Hiroshima Municipal Motomachi Senior High School, painted the picture.

"I hope nobody sees this light again," she said. "And I'd like to do something to tell people about the importance of peace."

Lee also tells his story to visiting international students. He recently told a group from South Korea how he suffered from double discrimination, and how the bombing not only affected Japanese, but foreign survivors as well.

"We should never forget the Korean residents like Mr. Lee who suffered from ethnic discrimination and the bombing," said Lee Jeong-min, a student at Sogang University.

Every August, Lee goes to pay his respects at a monument in Hiroshima commemorating Koreans killed in the bombing. "I think this is my mission," he says. "I'll keep sharing my experiences as long as I'm able to."