Whenever Lee Jong Keun speaks with children about his experience as a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor, he begins by showing them a picture of the blast's mushroom cloud. And then, the 90-year-old South Korean explains that Japanese were not the only people who died beneath it.
The main building of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum set up a new section featuring foreign A-bomb victims for the first time when it reopened in April after a two-year renovation.
(Lee Jong Keun, a South korean survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, speaks in an interview with Kyodo News in Hiroshima on May 17, 2019.)
There are various estimates of the number of foreign casualties in the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ranging from several thousand to tens of thousands in each, according to the cities. People from the Korean Peninsula, then under Japan's rule, are believed to have accounted for the great majority.
In Hiroshima, near the museum is a monument to Korean victims and survivors of the A-bomb, which says the lives of "more than 20,000 Koreans" were taken.
But Lee's journey to be able to talk about his experience as a foreign hibakusha was a long one that wound through decades of hiding both his ethnic identity and presence in Hiroshima during the bombing.
For years he "never clarified that I'm a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor), nor even that I'm a Korean," said Lee, who was born in 1928 in Shimane Prefecture, north of Hiroshima Prefecture, and suffered from racial discrimination from his classmates when he was a student.
(Visitors at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum look at a new exhibition about foreign victims and survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, on May 17, 2019.)
Using the name Masaichi Egawa following an order forced on Koreans to change their names to Japanese ones in 1939, he kept his origin secret after joining the local railway bureau, his workplace at the time of the atomic bombing.
Lee was on his way to work in central Hiroshima when he was suddenly "wrapped in a yellow light" on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. Just 16 years old at the time, he managed to survive, but his whole body was scorched, and he was seized by a "fear of death" in the months that followed.
Even many years after the end of the war, Lee thought it was "out of the question" to pass on his atomic bomb experience to the public while also revealing his identity.
But after going on a voyage around the world in 2012 organized by antinuclear group Peace Boat, which was seeking A-bomb survivors as participants, he began to feel how important it was for him to add his voice to the growing number of hibakusha who were speaking out about their experiences in the fight to abolish nuclear weapons.
Now Lee, who lives in Hiroshima, spends much of his time telling his story to elementary and junior high school students who visit the city on school trips, and he delivers speeches at local schools.
"I'm glad that the renovated museum installed the section focusing on foreign victims because the general public is still mostly unaware of their existence," said Lee.
According to the museum, tens of thousands of Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese were living in Hiroshima at the time of the blast, including those who had been conscripted or recruited from their homelands.
The museum's exhibition explains that in addition, other foreigners such as students from Southeast Asia and China as well as German and Russian residents and American prisoners of war also died.
In the new section, three foreigners are highlighted with enlarged photos accompanying their stories. Kwak Kwi Hoon, a 94-year-old South Korean, is among them, along with a student from Malaysia and a German priest.
(Photo taken May 16, 2019, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park shows a monument honoring Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.)
Kwak was conscripted by Japan and came to Hiroshima in September 1944, nearly a year before the bomb was dropped while he was on duty about 2 kilometers from the hypocenter. He sustained severe burns to his head and back and fell into a coma for three days from Aug. 9, 1945.
Later he came to be known as the plaintiff in a breakthrough ruling, in which a Japanese high court ordered the central government to pay a medical allowance to him as part of measures aimed at assisting survivors of the bombing. It became final and binding in 2002, and the government began making payments to him the following year.
Since then, several survivors living abroad have applied for health cards that recognize them as hibakusha victims entitled to such benefits.
As of March 2018, there were 3,123 health card holders abroad including 2,241 in South Korea, 667 in the United States, 95 in Brazil, 31 in Canada and 17 in Taiwan, according to the health ministry.
"In the past, Japanese public servants would refuse to deal with me (as a hibakusha survivor), just because I was living overseas," said Kwak, who lives in Seongnam, near Seoul, adding, "I hope that more people will get to know about foreign victims and survivors."
Hiroshima City, which tabled the plan for the museum, set up an advisory panel in 2010 to bring about the third large-scale renewal of the museum, which opened in 1955. The committee had numerous discussions about how to display the new exhibitions.
"We decided to put individual victims into focus, to tell people that not only Japanese people but whoever was there was bombed, regardless of their nationality," said Hironobu Ochiba, a curator of the museum in charge of the section. "We thought it could also help visitors from overseas feel closer to the tragedy."
(Photo taken May 17, 2019, shows the entrance of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum's main building, which reopened in April after two years of renovation, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.)
The number of foreign visitors to the museum has been steadily rising, logging an annual record of about 430,000 in the year through March, even though total visits including by Japanese dropped by some 160,000 from a year earlier to around 1.52 million.
Ochiba said the most significant challenge for handing down stories of foreign victims to subsequent generations is insufficient materials, documents, and information.
"We want to find more materials so that we can introduce various victims from various perspectives," said Ochiba.