Taiwanese survivor of the atomic bomb says he’s a “lucky man” despite tragedy

Kenzo Masui sits with his A-bomb Survivor Health Handbook during our interview in his apartment in Hiroshima.

HIROSHIMA, Japan – Kenzo Masui hardly seems like a lucky man.

Before Masui was even born, Japanese invaders had conquered his homeland — Taiwan — and as a young man, he endured bombings and strafing by the U.S. military when he worked on a Japanese ship during World War II.

Then he found himself by happenstance in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 — the day the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city, wiping out thousands and dosing him with enough radiation to make his hair fall out and give him diarrhea for weeks.

After the war, he lived as minority in Japan, a country where anti-Chinese prejudice was rampant. His Japanese wife’s parents opposed their marriage so stridently that they cut off relations with their daughter after the wedding.

Yet, for all that, Masui — at 86, considered the last Taiwanese a-bomb survivor still alive in Hiroshima today — says he’s lived a charmed life.

“Oh, my life, it’s been so interesting!” he told a visitor recently in his tiny apartment above a Chinese restaurant in downtown Hiroshima, where he can look out his window and see the spot where the bomb dropped 68 years ago.

Yet rather than tell a tale of woe, Masui sees his life as one miracle after the other: he says he was rescued from death several times by helpful strangers or twists of fate; despite being perilously close to Ground Zero, he is a robust octogenarian with no major health problems; despite being a minority, he has managed to win both health benefits for being an a-bomb survivor and Japanese citizenship.

Masui sitting with his interpreter during our interview.

Born Chen Ji-Gyou, he had just graduated from marine business school in Central Taiwan when he got a job at a Japanese shipping company at 17 years old. With the sea between Taiwan and Japan controlled by the U.S. Navy in 1944, Masui narrowly escaped death several times when his ships came under attack.

“I was very lucky,” Masui recalled recently in his apartment.

Masui moved to Hiroshima soon after arriving in Japan to work as a deliveryman with his Taiwanese friend. On the morning of August 6, 1945, they were delivering packages by the Kyobashi River.

Then the blast struck the city.

“Just like a silent film, there was no sound,” Masui said. “It was calm, but very scary. A person’s burned smell was coming from everywhere.”

Masui and his friend had been 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles) away from the hypocenter and were not seriously injured. However, symptoms of radiation sickness emerged later as their hair started falling out in patches and they both suffered diarrhea for several weeks.

Masui remembers being researched by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a commission funded by the United States to investigate the effects of the bomb, and how they never attempted to treat the survivors.

“My hair was lost because of the radiation, I thought,” he said. “But I didn’t know what it really was.”

Despite his lack of treatment, Masui was able to recover quickly and move on with his life. Due to the political conflict between China, Taiwan and Japan after the war, he feared if he left Japan he wouldn’t be able to return. He later gave up his Taiwanese citizenship to guarantee permanent residency in Japan, becoming a man of no nationality for several decades.

Due to his improved health, it didn’t occur to him to apply for the survivor’s health book, a certificate for the atomic bomb survivors to receive compensation from the Japanese government.

Although he felt healthy and didn’t experience any reoccurring symptoms of radiation poisoning, he feared sickness might emerge in the long run. Therefore, he decided to apply for the health book in 1963.

With Masui’s address at the time of the bombing only 1.5 kilometers from the hypocenter, it wasn’t hard to prove his status as a survivor. Although he wasn’t a Japanese citizen, he quickly received the book and was later able to support himself and even visit his family in Taiwan again for the first time in 20 years.

“I will never forget the joy I felt at that time,” he said.

Still receiving medical and living compensation, Masui went on to live a fulfilling life as a chef and owner of a Chinese restaurant in Hiroshima. He later married a Japanese woman named Mika despite her parents’ disapproval due to his foreign status.

Many foreigners didn’t stay in Japan after the war. Although the A-bomb Survivors’ Medical Service Law of 1957 and A-Bomb Victims’ Special Measures Law of 1968 guaranteed medical assistance for survivors, the laws failed to establish protection for survivors abroad.

It wasn’t until 1974 did the Health Ministry establish a rule on residency with the Official Notice 402. It excluded survivors living abroad from eligibility.

So as they returned to their families, many survivors were automatically disqualified as atomic bomb survivors and were unable to receive any health and financial support.

A-bomb survivor Chen Xin-ci (陳新賜)
A fellow A-bomb survivor from Taiwan, Chen Xin-Ci, whose wife and children were killed in Nagasaki.

As a result, many experienced dramatically different lives from Masui despite enduring the same tragedies. Chen Xin-Ci (陳新賜), another Taiwanese survivor, went through treacherous legal battles until finally receiving his benefits at 97 years old in May of 2011.

Like Masui, Chen moved to Japan from Central Taiwan as a teenager in pursuit of a better career. Under Japanese rule, Taiwan was prohibited from providing education on politics, law and medicine. Recognizing his son’s natural intelligence, Chen’s father decided to send him to Nagasaki Medical School in hopes for a better career, according to Chen’s memoir written by Taiwanese author Li Jan-Ping.

Due to severe wartime rationing, Chen lived in severe poverty. As the conditions of the war worsened, Nagasaki became a frequent target for US air raids and the medical school was turned into a government-mandated first-aid center.

There he encountered major Taiwanese democracy activist Peng Ming-Min and administered the amputation of his left arm. Peng is blacklisted to this day from Taiwan due to his support for Taiwanese independence and opposition against the Kuo Ming Tang, the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek after the war.

Japan was in chaos as the nation approached the end of World War II. For their safety and for lessening the financial burden, Chen’s wife and two children had been living with his family in Taiwan as the war worsened.

Missing his wife and children’s company, they returned to Nagasaki in early 1945 to reunite the family.

“With a pair of smart and disciplined children, our hearts were filled with warmth despite the poor conditions we lived,” he said, as documented in his memoir.

Their happiness was short-lived when the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki on the morning of August 9th, 1945. Treating a patient at the time, Chen escaped with mild injuries by seeking cover behind a pillar in the Nagasaki hospital. His wife and children died instantly in their home.

Traumatized from the loss, Chen left Japan to reunite with his parents. He inherited a medical clinic in Taichung and remarried several years later.

Now 99 years old, Chen is one of the only two Taiwanese survivors living abroad who was able to receive compensation, with the help of lawyer Satoshi Mukaiyama.

The Gembaku Dome in Hiroshima, now a memorial for the lives lost to the world’s first atomic bomb drop.

Mukaiyama is a part of a team of lawyers in Japan who deals specifically with cases of foreign survivors seeking compensation from the Japanese government.

The team, originally composed of only five lawyers, successfully overruled the Notice 402 in a Supreme Court Case in 2003. However, the ruling still caused survivors to face a major obstacle, considering their average age and frail conditions.

“The Japanese government said they won’t pay anything unless each plaintiff comes to Japan and goes to court,” Mukaiyama said. “So, thousands of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) had to come to Japan and take this case up.”

Due to the tremendous amount of work in international cases, the team needed more lawyers to help every survivor get their share of benefits. Now on a team of 14 lawyers, Mukaiyama was one of the recruited members who got assigned to specialize in Taiwanese survivors’ cases.

Just within the first three months of 2013, Mukaiyama said he had traveled back and forth between Taiwan and Japan 18 times for the purpose of defending the survivors.

View of the sunrise over Hiroshima City from our hotel room
The City of Hiroshima, in March 2013

With Mukaiyama’s help, Chen was rewarded an annual 1,100,000 yen from the Japanese government, 200,000 yen in lawyer fees, and a five percent annual interest from 2003 as a late fee. It sums up to a total of around 15,000 USD.

“Even though it’s not a lot of money, it is a justice that the Taiwanese people have long been waiting for,” Chen’s son Chen Jia-Yu said.

With only 18 Taiwanese survivors recorded, Mukaiyama said there’s a lot to be done for the known survivors needing compensation but also for the undocumented survivors.

“There must have been a lot of A-bomb survivors who died in agony without being able to tell anyone about themselves having been A-bomb survivors,” Mukaiyama said, “To think about such victims, whom it is now impossible to find, makes me feel helpless.”

The lawyers are not seeking any change in the flawed system that causes foreign survivors to be left out of the equation. They are instead focusing on gathering as many survivors as possible from all over the world and providing them with the benefits that they deserve before it’s too late.

Masui finally received his Japanese citizenship in 1990 when he joined the Peace Boat, which took survivors all over the world to share their stories in order to spread peace education. As a man who witnessed one of the world’s most horrific scenes, he isn’t shy in sharing his tales of narrowly escaping death and the exceptional luck that has allowed him to live a long and healthy life.

After finally receiving his “good luck” sixty-eight years later, Chen has donated all his compensation to charity.


Article originally published in April, 2013. Want to know how this story came together? Read about the making of here.