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Hiroshima at 75: A Painful Legacy Tempered by Hope and a Treaty via The Diplomat

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That morning, August 6, 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb for only the second time. Three weeks earlier the Trinity test, conducted in New Mexico, marked the first successful detonation of a nuclear device. The second detonation was no test.

A 15 kiloton uranium bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” was dropped over Hiroshima. Prior to the attack, residents of the city had grown increasingly unsettled, wondering why Hiroshima, one of the largest cities in Japan, had been ominously spared by merciless bombings that razed scores of other Japanese cities.

Setsuko and her parents were not among the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the bomb dropped that day, but Setsuko’s older sister Ayako and 4-year-old son Eiji, who had returned to Hiroshima for a doctor’s appointment, were. 

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Seventy-five years later, speaking from her home in Toronto, Setsuko’s voice shivers with anguish as she describes how two Japanese soldiers doused her sister and nephew’s bodies in gasoline and used bamboo poles to turn them in an open cremation while their family stood frozen, watching numb with shock.

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Setsuko, who campaigned tirelessly in partnership with ICAN, celebrated knowing that after the nuclear weapons ban treaty has been ratified by 50 nations, it will enter into force and the development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, or threatened use of nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law. 

Currently, 40 nations have ratified the ban treaty, which is vigorously opposed by the nine nuclear armed states, as well as 30 nuclear endorsing states including Japan and Canada, where Setsuko is a citizen and has resided since marrying Canadian historian Jim Thurlow in 1955.

This year, Setsuko wrote 197 letters to leaders and heads of state of all nations of the world, including a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau imploring him to acknowledge Canada’s frequently overlooked role in supporting the Manhattan Project while also calling on Canada to ratify the ban treaty.

Setsuko has written to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly but says, “Every time I go to Tokyo, he’s always too busy. Of course he is avoiding me.” The 88-year-old peace activist wonders aloud why the prime minister is afraid to meet her. “I don’t have anything scary but the truth.”

When Setsuko hears diplomats and policy experts discuss nuclear strategy and deterrence theory, she wishes they would instead think of Eiji, her 4-year-old nephew killed by the bomb who, she says, represents all the innocent children that could be killed if any of the world’s more than 13,000 nuclear weapons were used.

The abolition of nuclear weapons, Setsuko argues, “is much too important just to leave it to the politicians. We are talking about life and death issues.”

Under Abe, Japan has had a muted response to U.S. withdrawals from international arms treaties as well as a recent report that the Trump administration was considering the possible resumption of explosive nuclear weapons testing.

Japan’s “chummy” relationship with the United States, Setsuko says, is indicative of an alliance she calls “total subservience to U.S. policy.” She insists Abe and Japan’s powerful Liberal Democratic Party’s opposition to the ban treaty is out of step with public opinion.

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