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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Nurturing Hiroshima's Survivor Trees

Feb. 3, 2017

Hiroshima is home to dozens of trees that survived the atomic bombing more than 70 years ago but their survival is threatened, so measures are being taken to keep them in good health.

Last August, field research began on 161 officially designated "survivor trees." For the checkup, the city turned to veteran tree doctor Chikara Horiguchi, who has been caring for them for about 30 years.

For each tree, Horiguchi has a checklist of more than 100 items, including the condition of the trunk and the roots, and the quality of the tree’s immediate environment.

"The trunk is very hollow," Horiguchi says, inspecting one tree. "It’s in a severe condition. It's surviving on its bark alone."

Horiguchi discovered about a quarter of the trees would die within a few years if no measures are taken.

Some survivors associate the trees with family members who died in the bombing. Horiguchi visited Anraku-ji Temple, where a 300-year-old ginkgo tree stands 2 kilometers from Ground Zero.

Koji Toyooka is a former chief priest of the temple and he says the tree reminds him of his younger brother, Junji, who was killed in the bombing.

"I used to play around here with my little brother, throwing heaps of leaves at each other," Toyooka says.

His 12-year-old brother had been mobilized for work and was outside when the bomb was dropped. Junji's whole body was severely burned, and he was carried into the temple, close to death.

"I looked at the wounded person they said was my brother, but I didn't recognize him. His face was blackened from the burns, and his lips had peeled off," Toyooka recalls. "He stared at all 4 of us and said, 'Thank you, father,' 'Thank you, mother,' 'Thank you, sister,' 'Thank you, brother.' As he spoke, he faded away and died. He was such a cheerful, good person."

Ever since then, Toyooka has taken care of the ginkgo tree. During the restoration of the temple's gate, workers considered cutting the tree’s branches but Toyooka had a hole cut in the roof to allow the tree to grow naturally.

Since that time, Toyooka has noticed a change in the ginkgo tree.

"The leaves used to be big, but recently they’re much smaller. Why is this happening?" he asks.

Horiguchi studied the tree, and found its roots had thinned, affecting the tree's ability to absorb nutrients. He recommended nourishing the soil with fertilizer.

"All I can do is protect this tree. From now on, I want to work harder to do that," Horiguchi says.

These trees give atomic-bomb survivors some precious memories and Horiguchi has listened to many of their stories. After extensive research, he has accumulated about 1,500 pages of information on the trees and now, for the first time, he is working on compiling medical records for all of them.

"I want to document the condition and medical history of each tree, to make the job of looking after the trees easier for those who inherit this work,” Horiguchi says.

Horiguchi was especially impressed with the vitality of a particular weeping willow that almost died after the bombing. But a new sapling sprouted from the root, and has grown up beside the older tree.

Horiguchi was not the only one excited to see this young tree grow. Kenji Kitagawa was in class at elementary school when the bomb struck nearby, and he was exposed to radiation.

The school building collapsed, and most of Kitagawa’s classmates were killed. The whole area was engulfed in flames. Kitagawa jumped into the river and ended up under the willow tree where he often played.

"The branches were broken, and the leaves were scattered everywhere. I do remember that this once-familiar tree looked horrible, completely destroyed," Kitagawa remembers.

After the war, Kitagawa took courage from the willow tree every time he walked passed it. He noticed that its leaves were slowly beginning to grow back.

"It became my reason to live -- I was so encouraged to see this willow tree trying hard to survive. It made me want to live on, too," he says.

Horiguchi hopes to continue caring for the young weeping willow, and to complete medical records for all of the trees by the end of March.

"I want to continue to take care of these trees, because they each have a life and can teach us the importance of peace. I want to help them, so they’ll live for another year, 5 years, or even 10 years from now," Horiguchi says.

Thanks to these efforts the trees will continue to tell their stories for many years to come.