Emiko Okada: the story of an atomic bombing survivor (Part Two)

This is part two of a series in which we are uploading the English translation of an interview with Emiko Okada, a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Her whole story will be told in parts, detailing her early life before the war, her experience in the bombing and its aftermath, her life in the decades following the bombing, and her activism in recent years, in posts over the next few weeks. The interview was conducted in Japanese and has been translated so that her story can be spread around the world, to encourage people to think more deeply about peace and the role of nuclear weapons in the world today. The interview was spoken and has been translated as is, so read it as if somebody was talking to you.
Part one, in which Okada-san speaks of her pre-war life and experience in the bombing, can be accessed here.

Living through the devastation

My father’s struggle

After the bomb fell, my dad had not only felt great guilt at losing his daughter, but both guilt and difficulty that the same middle schoolers he had been giving a radical military education to, he now had to teach about the sanctity of life and democracy; the middle schoolers who had survived, anyway.

During the war, even though they were officially middle schoolers, they were receiving the same education as the military. As the evacuation point for Matsumoto Commercial School was in Danbara, in the shadow of Mount Hijiyama, most people survived. They spent three days trying to clean away rubble in the care of the teachers, but were sent home. Within ten days, the war finished.

Now, he had to teach those same students democracy; my dad was very conflicted. As it was the same school, the same students. They blacked out all of the textbooks, and had to teach the importance of life this time around.

His daughter would never come home, he knew she was dead, and so he worked for another year to tie up his obligations, and then quit. What he said at the time was that during the war, they had to teach the students that it was ‘for the country’, that both he and the students had no ability to say no to the military curriculum he had to teach. Even if he himself thought it weird and dangerous, he couldn’t say so. As a teacher’s job is to teach. He said that teaching the importance of life was something to be done at home, that putting it in the textbooks didn’t actually impart any semblance of how important it actually is. Anyway, he was insistent that parents had to teach the importance of life at home. Parents have to protect their kids. After I became an adult, I remember him saying that. I was brainwashed into thinking that were I born a boy, I would have wanted to run off and join the army. I was convinced that soldiers were the most fabulous people. I was educated that way.

After the war, I felt that I had been freed. Though I had no idea what the Imperial Broadcast (the emperor’s radio announcement stating the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration and the surrender of Japan; it was given in archaic language normal people don’t speak) When it came on, the adults all bowed so deeply their faces were pressed against the ground, listening, but I couldn’t make anything he said out. Even so, I felt freed that the war had ended. Until that point nobody could speak freely, neither children nor adults. Everyone would report anyone who spoke out of line, as if they were spies. So nobody could say what they really meant, there was no freedom. So after the war finished, we all felt free.

Even though I still had my parents, there was a lot of orphans created by the war. The kids that had been evacuated away from their parents, but had had them die. There were more than 6000 in Hiroshima alone, kids that would steal rice from the mountains, kids that would steal vegetables. Then there were adults who took donations meant for them. The yakuza would give the kids food and absorb them into their gangs, giving them pistols and such. Behind the station there were lots of kids in that situation.

Most of the kids around me had been evacuated. Three doors down from me, there was a lady named Kagegawa. She had a son who straight after getting married, was deployed overseas. They got the news that he had been killed in action. If you think from her perspective, she’d lost her only son, he and his wife had had no children, so she made the decision to send her back to her parents’ home. After that, I think that his wife remarried, but then one day, he came back. He hadn’t died, there had been a mix-up with paperwork.

The son that had seemingly come back from the dead blamed her for what she had done. “Why did you send my wife back?!” He was filled with rage. At his own mother. At the time, there was no properly manufactured alcohol, all they had was moonshine sake, they drank all this weird alcohol with no idea what was in it. “Go get my drink”, he’d say, and make her go buy it. Nobody had money, so she’d trade her clothes and stuff for alcohol. It’s not like it was a real liquor store, it was just a random person in a hamlet. He’d scream and shout at her all day. I don’t think he knew any other way to deal with his feelings. Towards the end, all she had on was an underskirt, and an undershirt made from gauze. She was at the back door of our house, her hands together, begging “We have nothing to eat…”, mum gave her some of our sweet potatoes to eat. We may have had our own family to take care of, but I still watched my mum share our food with her.

War… What was the war even for? Everybody was a victim in their own ways, with their own pain and sadness. When I was doing the tour around to seven shrines, I walked near where my house used to be, I saw the name “Kagegawa” written on a gate and that brought it all back. But the generations have gone on, so it must be her grandchild in there now.

On the corner of our block, I remember there was a waterworks. At the waterworks, there were Korean people using water from the taps to wash their clothes by stepping on them. Behind the waterworks, they had a house with lights. I don’t think they had any running water though. I know there were a lot of kids living in that house. The one who seemed to be their mother had long plaited hair, and always seemed to be a mixture of angry and sad. After the war finished, everybody was pained, struggling. We were all conflicted in our hearts, but we couldn’t say anything to anyone. Life is hard, you know.

I feel lucky, at least I was born to good parents. It’s not like I studied and got a great education, but my parents set an example for me of true human kindness.

In my neighbourhood, there was a christian couple, I can’t remember if they were called Nishikawa or Kawanishi. In the barracks that were set up amongst the burnt-out rubble, they built a church. It’s still there today, the Shushiro Church of Christ. Mum would go there, and make underwear out of calico, they didn’t have anything else to use. She’d make pair after pair. I think I was in year six at the time. I just went along with her, so I didn’t actually know what they were doing it for.

In Onaga, they had a school for the blind. Kids those days would use really discriminatory language towards them, saying things like “Your dad’s a cripple!” and throwing rocks. While the blind people would tap along the ground with their canes on their way to school I remember we used to do awful things to them. Thinking back, it really was discrimination. For those people, mum would make things written in braille. That’s how I learnt braille.

Of course, they couldn’t read regular books or newspapers. Mum would always say, “Anything will do, just conveying the meaning for them is the main thing”. We’d do it with a needle, all the different syllables “A, I, U, E, O” … That’s how I learnt. It’s still in the church today. The priest of the time died and now his daughter has taken over.

After the war, there were christian people who wanted to know how they could provide assistance to Hiroshima. One day, my father went to Tokyo to meet with General MacArthur. I don’t know what happened exactly, but clothes and other supplies started to roll in. Apparently, the church had set up the meeting. My parents weren’t christians, but the christian couple from a few doors down had put a word in for him.

Dad was a hibakusha, so I imagine that he simply asked “Please, send some supplies to Japan.” Soon after, supplies from the Agencies for Relief in Asia came. In the place we were living at the time, a sort of barracks, we got given our first washing machine. A big round one. Everybody was really fascinated by it. All the adults gathered around, saying “This thing washes your clothes?!” They were really surprised. After we plugged it in and flicked it on, the power suddenly cut out. Apparently the voltage was wrong, so in the end we never ended up using it (laughs).

My little brother got his first baseball glove and ball. It was used and old, but he took great care of it for many years. Those sorts of things were super rare for us at the time. He wore it down, but took it to bed and slept holding it every night.

As they were in the same area, the Shushiro Church and Rev. Tanimoto of the Ryukawa Church had ties with my parents. I was just a kid, so I had no idea, I’d never met them. I’d heard their names in passing, but that’s it.

At the time, there was heaps and heaps of Yakuza around the station. The Murakami-gumi syndicate, the Nakada-gumi syndicate, it was flooded with vagrants too. The first cafe that was built, Mushika, was the heart of the town. I think it helped people settle down. It was always overfilled with people, it sort of helped you escape reality.

Okada-san’s family, taken a few months prior to the bombing. Her father stands at the back, her mother seated with little brother on her lap.

Learning from the radio

When I was little, the only way to hear music was the radio. When I heard bright music from the radio, I’d suddenly realise how sorry I was feeling for myself. Children’s music. I was about 10 at the time, a couple of years after the war finished, after I was hit by the bomb.

I also heard that India had sent an elephant to a Japanese zoo on the radio. During the war, not just elephants, but all the animals in zoos across Japan died. They starved. In 1947-ish, a boy wrote a letter saying that he wanted an elephant at the zoo, and I don’t know how it worked out, but Prime Minister Neru of India named the elephant after his daughter and donated it to Japan.

I was really moved by it at the time. I was really down, feeling sorry for myself. The world was sending things, sending elephants to Japan. I wasn’t doing anything. I was only doing things for myself. I started feeling that I had to become nicer and more caring.

It was on the radio news, on a children’s evening programme. Prime Minister Neru had gifted Japan an elephant. At first, they housed it in the Ueno Zoo, but later made it walk to a zoo in Nagoya instead. I thought the whole story was incredible because at the time I didn’t know anything about the world and how it worked.

Living desperately

Going into dressmaking after declaring I would never do so

I went to Hijiyama Middle and High Schools. I still had my parents so we had some semblance of normality.

Every Thursday, we had a whole school assembly where the principal would give a lecture. The times being as they were, the lecture wasn’t about study or our futures, it was about how to become a good mother. The lectures put me to sleep every time. I only realised what the real meaning behind them was recently. No matter how terrible and painful the world becomes, the one who has to protect life in the end is the mothers of the world. I only realised that recently.

After graduating high school, I studied to be a dressmaker. Before the war, I was acting out against my parents. Saying that “I’ll never make clothes!”.

There was a teacher of dressmaking in our neighbourhood at the time. It was because of them that I decided to study to be a dressmaker. I was 18 at the time, in about 1955. Well I went into dressmaking, but at the time we didn’t have any fabric, we didn’t have anything. I went to school, but there weren’t any materials to actually use. So we took kimono and other clothes that had survived the war and cut them up, washed them and started sewing using the materials from them. Using bamboo needles, we’d pull and stretch the material. It was the first time I’d ever made clothes, we might not have had good materials, but I was really happy just that I was able to make them.

After quitting his teaching job, my parents opened a tool shop together. There weren’t really any other jobs, so they opened a shop that dealt with machine parts.

Mum would do embroidery and bag-making. Using calico and string, she’d embroider things. All by hand. It wasn’t just us. Everybody had to feed and educate their kids, and there was still a lot of unemployment at the time. There wasn’t really anywhere for people like my dad to just go and work.

A tool shop didn’t really provide much cash income, that’s the sort of thing it was. His customers were subcontractors for Toyo Heavy Industries, Kawada Steel. He’d walk around and sell to all the factories in town, they had a couple of employees too.

Nobody ever needed a single nail, he’d be selling hundreds at a time. Everything was done in cheques and promissory notes. The promissory notes were only to be cashed after three months, so that meant he had no immediate cash income. During the Korean War, they had a stable income and we lived well enough.

About three years after I started studying dressmaking, just after the Korean War finished, a check suddenly bounced. They went bankrupt overnight, as part of a big chain reaction. They were pushed. My parents couldn’t stay in Hiroshima because debt collectors would come after them, so they fled to Tokyo, where my younger brother was. My brother was studying off of an allowance until then, but he was forced to get a job and focus on living rather than studying. My brother was going to high school in Saka at the time, but before he could even hear of my parents’ bankruptcy debt collectors went after him. It was just before his exams, and he had tuberculosis too. So amongst all this, I was left alone in Hiroshima.

It was 1959, Emperor Akihito had just gotten married and there was a fever around his wife Michiko. The economy had started to turn around, and cafes had started to buy TV sets and put up signs advertising them. In the midst of this, they went bankrupt. I went over to the factory that had issued the dishonoured cheque and begged them to pay the money back, even if it was bit by bit. I’d tell them I’d come on behalf of my boss, and take bills and receipts. I’d go across town there on my bike. Every single day, I’d say to them “I’m here from Sankyo Ltd.”

Everybody that worked there were men, ones who had only finished primary school. It was frightening, I was a woman after all. Even 100 yen would be fine, I just wanted to get the money back. I’d bow deeply to the people in charge of their accounting, but they’d just tell me “if your parents came, we’d gladly pay them.” No matter if I was their daughter, they wouldn’t just give me the money.

It’s not like my parents would ever come back anyway. Most people didn’t have any phone at home back then anyway. There was a public phone in the shop though. I had to stop my studies, and from that day I was just sewing, sewing all day. Even a single yen would do, I really had no money at all.

My parents were in debt to a lot of different places and because they weren’t around anymore, it all got repossessed. They owed more than 18,000,000 yen (~108m yen or around a million dollars today). All of their property got taken.

They’d bought a tuk-tuk like three-wheeled car in my name too. There were no normal cars at the time, so that’s all there was. Even though I didn’t have anything to do with it, they came after me. They took me to court. At court, I was told that if I didn’t pay up, I’d be thrown in jail. One of the credit unions settled with me, and made agree to pay back 1000 yen a day.

Because of that I couldn’t study or relax at all. Just sew, sew, sew. It didn’t matter what the job was, how ripped the clothes were, I needed money no matter how small. They’d come to collect the 1000 yen every day. I had no weekends or holidays, they’d come on those too. I couldn’t have the power shut off, but I cancelled the newspaper and everything I could.

I took over the place my parents were using for their shop. It was in the shopping centre next to where the Higashi-Hiroshima Post Office was. It was in their name. I had it done as soon as possible, put into my name. Otherwise it would have been repossessed too. I really had no freedom at the time. Life is hard work. Pride and vanity don’t mean anything. That place turned into both my shop and house. It was the only place I could go.

I was fine using the sewing machine, but when you have a shop, you don’t know what kind of customers will come. The dressmaking school only taught us the basics really. So there were fat people, skinny people, old folks and kids.

I’d studied in centimetres at school, so I didn’t really have any idea what to do when they came and asked me to do things in the old way of measuring. All the different types of kimono. It was fashionable at the time to make kimono out of the same material used to make western clothing. To make kimono, one had to use traditional measurements, shaku (~30.3cm) and sun (~3.72cm.) All of them were like that. They’d bring their western clothes to me and ask me to make them into kimono. Of course, I couldn’t just tell them that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, they were customers and I needed money. So I studied at night to improve my skills. There wasn’t anyone to teach me about kimono and stuff. I studied really hard into the night. I’d buy women’s’ magazines and study how to measure them properly and act as if all was okay to my customers. I’d measure them and just judge based on that. There was no time for me to get nervous. If I made even a slight mistake they’d want compensation. I think that was actually a good experience for me, at 22-23, I was backed into a corner and forced to work hard, and somehow overcame it.

Everybody wanted something made, there was no such thing as off the rack clothes back then. Everybody had high hopes, dreams, when they ordered clothes. They’d bring their magazines and ask me to make it just like it was on the model. I couldn’t just tell them to fix their figure if they wanted that (laughs). At the time, new designs from Paris were flooding in, A-line and H-line dresses, that sort of thing.

Married life

It was around that time that I married my husband. None of our parents were in Hiroshima so the ceremony kept getting delayed. He was working for NTT (the national telecoms company)

I met him when NTT was looking for a young woman to put on the cover of their pamphlets. I was going to dressmaking school at the time and I guess they couldn’t find anyone else, so they put me on the cover. We met before any of the big issues had happened so we couldn’t even have imagined that we’d have to work as hard as we did.

His pay was exactly 30,000 yen a month. After the bankruptcy, I had to pay back 1000 a day, so exactly 30,000 a month. Then on top of that we had to live as well. Going to have clothes made was like a dream for most women, they’d come in to the shop feeling like models. Saying “I want this style, this design please”. Of course I couldn’t actually wear any of the new looks myself because we didn’t have money. When I got pregnant, I took my husband’s suit pants and wore them unfastened, with a rope around my waist so I could adjust it as my belly got bigger. Men get the better materials, don’t they? So on the top half I’d just drape a long coat over the top until I had the baby. I don’t usually wear such weird things, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I didn’t feel pained or embarrassed at the time, I was too focused on just getting the loan out of the way.

We officially got married when I was 24. Right after we got engaged his mother passed away, so that delayed the wedding even further. Whilst engaged, my parents went bankrupt and so it got delayed yet again. Anyways, in the end we had a wedding with my parents, hiding away in Hiroshima so they wouldn’t be found out. They still couldn’t pay the money back, so I had to stay behind alone in Hiroshima. I wasn’t in a position to talk or get advice from anyone, I was really put in a corner. From the outside it might seem weird, but there wasn’t anything I could do, I had hit rock bottom. I can laugh about it now, but I was really trapped back then.

The combined house/shop was a very cramped three-story building. It was only around 23 square metres total. My husband was a government employee, so he’d come back on time in the evening, and I’d still be busy at work in the shop. If I had customers, he’d come back and just sit upstairs waiting for me. I think it gradually ate away at him. Looking back now, during our three years of poverty, there were often times when he got sick of it and didn’t come home. But we never properly fought. We were too focused on paying back the debt.

30,000 every month for three years. When we finally got it paid off, I really appreciated how much he’d put up with for three years.

After we got out of our financial rut, we started talking about buying land and a house. If we did that, we could change our lives, he could get home early and not have to worry and such. We’d tried so hard for three years, so after working just a little bit more we could get something a bit more comfortable. He sold some land he had and we built our current house in Nakayama. I think that we never broke up because we went through so many struggles together.

Most people these days have no real struggles when they’re getting married. I had nothing to offer in the marriage, just debt. Thugs would come to the shop and fight sometimes, but I don’t scare easily, and so that just made me stronger. I had confidence because of my work, I’d paid of big debts and now if I worked, money would come in. Now that I’m older though, I think if I fought like I did in the olden days I’d collapse (laughs). My life is just a big loop of mistakes and frustration, but it has led me to where I am today. I’m perfectly happy with things not going as planned. Hopes and dreams, things I wanted to do, I didn’t have any room in my head to think of those things. But thinking back, I think that that really shaped me into the person I am today.

I don’t feel any resentment towards my parents. There were times at new year’s where I thought of them living poor lives with my little brother in Tokyo, and sent them new year bento on the Shinkansen with my friend who worked on it as a salesgirl. She knew of our situation, so I asked her to take it to my parents in Shiodome. I filled it with Hiroshima delicacies and sent it up to them, hoping it would make them feel a bit better. People go through many trials in life, and that’s the one I given. I really think that if a couple goes through struggles and comes out the other side, it makes them all the stronger. Two people that live completely different lives living together, he with his stable public servant lifestyle and me with my harsh manual labour work. There’s no simple equation for life, no such thing as 1+1=2, in my opinion.

What happened to my parents afterwards?
Mum died in Tokyo from a cerebral haemorrhage. She had a lot of glass fragments in her head, in her bone that couldn’t be removed because they were shattered into such fine pieces. She had glass that glowed in her, all over her body. At her cremation, it shone incredibly brightly, so it was obvious that she had a heap in her head.

My beloved children

Kids are all cute, when they’re born, everybody around is so happy and welcoming, whenever the kids do anything everyone’s so enthusiastic, “Oh look, they peed!” or “Look, they pooed!”. Of course, having a kid means that you’ve created another part of yourself. You can never give your kids too much love.

As soon as I had first I thought, “We have to start saving money!”. When they had an asthma attack, we didn’t have any money, no savings at all. So I ended up working on phone sex line. I’d work there, then put all the 10-yen coins I got there in my pocket and when to the pedologist. When you have kids you constantly have to have money stored away.

Living as a family of four

We built a house in Nakayama and the shop, which was near Hiroshima station, moved into a department store. When working with the dressmakers there, I started thinking that I wanted to make all the women of Hiroshima fashionable. It was my dream, once the kids grew up and moved out, to build a fashion building. To have a floor for accessories, a floor for hairdressing and so on, women could come and get made-up over a day.

I really don’t know why god seems to be testing me so much. I lost my son, who was in his first year of middle school, in a traffic accident. He was crossing the road on his bike. After that, I started hating to go outside. For about a year, I just sat in front of the family altar in our house and drank from morning to night.

I’ve come to be able to talk about it now, but back then even the mention of a ‘son’ would bring me to tears. Everyone around had kids. So they’d all come to offer their condolences, which I hated. I’d tell them how they had no idea what I was going through. I really drank so much. I didn’t want anything. Life doesn’t turn out how you expect it to. I can only go on living now because I think that he’s watching over me down here on earth.

I stopped sewing, and so my place in the department store was taken. If I went there, everyone knew what had happened. The customers too, I really couldn’t deal with it. Everybody would give their condolences as a way of trying to comfort me, but that would have the opposite effect and actually just make the pain worse.

Then whilst I was grieving, the profession itself changed so much, off the rack fashion became mainstream. I couldn’t deal with meeting people or anything like that for 10 years or so.

Okada-san with her children.

English Translation by Liam Walsh


Emiko Okada: the story of an atomic bombing survivor (Part One)

This is part one of a series in which we will be uploading the English translation of an interview with Emiko Okada, a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Her whole story will be told in parts, detailing her early life before the war, her experience in the bombing and its aftermath, her life in the decades following the bombing, and her activism in recent years, in posts over the next few weeks. The interview was conducted in Japanese and has been translated so that her story can be spread around the world, to encourage people to think more deeply about peace and the role of nuclear weapons in the world today. The interview was spoken and has been translated as is, so read it as if somebody was talking to you.

Please click photos to open them bigger and have a closer look.

The precious ‘normal’ days I spent in Onagachō

Emiko Okada (in her mother’s arms), with her older sister Mieko (middle) and her aunt, pictured on the left. (Photo taken 1937)

The birth of Emiko Okada (née Nakasako)

This is the first time I’ve told this old story like this. Though I am telling people about my experience in the nuclear bombing. It feels like I’m starting to get senile. Whilst I can still remember, I want to tell my story to those I meet. I’m starting to lose confidence in my memory.

I was brought up three doors down from where Setōuchi High School is now, in a place called Onagachō. I was called Nakasako. Emiko Nakasako. My birthday is the first of January, 1937.

My family was made up of my mum, my dad, my older sister, and my two younger brothers. So, I was one of four siblings.

In the blast most of the pictures of our house were lost, but the ones that were at my relatives houses were spared, and they sent them to me after the war. As always, I look like a boy in them with my bob cut that I had back then.

Even so, as there were girls in our house, like every family at the time who had girls, we had hina dolls (displayed on Girls’ day), because I had something like that around, I feel that I was really cared for. Every year they’d take it out of its box and set it up for me. This was around 1938.

Okada-san pictured with her older sister Mieko and their hina doll display.

Just as I was due to begin primary school, I believe my mum was practicing buyo (a traditional type of Japanese dance). I have a photo in which my mum and sister were paying a sympathy visit to the army hospital. After the war, I remember them practicing the aoyanagi style of buyo on top of the Fukuya department store, which was left standing in the middle of the rubble. The Fukuya building was left standing. Although all around it was rubble and corpses. It was three or four stories tall. “How mysterious.” I thought.

There was an organ in our house. My sister played it for us. Even though it was in the middle of the war, it was really fun, a real good memory. Singing with my little brother. In the tense atmosphere of the time, we were only allowed to sing military songs like “The Seven Buttons”, but at home could sing happier children’s songs about quacking ducks and things. That was really fun. Thinking back, we were a really close family.

Admiring the Military

Okada-san as a child, pictured with her family. On the front left, her older sister Mieko, Okada-san in the middle in military-styled clothes with her boyish haircut, her little brother and her mother. Her father stands at the back.

I was a real tomboy. I even thought that I wanted to join the military. I’ve still got a photo of my younger self wearing a navy uniform (above). I really wanted to try military clothes on, I thought they were cool. We were educated to think that soldiers were the most fabulous people in the world. If you had a boy, every household would cooperate and send them off for the country, that’s just how it was at the time. Every single household.

In military education, there is no such thing as ‘freedom’. I remember getting my primary school textbooks, but from 1st through sixth grade, we had to line up at the school gates and bow as deeply as possible, chanting positive things about the emperor. We had to chant in extremely high-level, honorific language that no-one understood, so we had to memorise it and just repeat it without knowing what we were saying. Portraits of the emperor were hung at the gates of every school. Along with the statue of Ninomiya Kinjiro.

Around me, I remember middle school students being sent off to the front, though the red paper (draft card, calling young men up for military service) was only to come once one turned 17. Students my dad taught, those about to graduate, joined voluntarily. Everybody wanted to go to pilot school or navy school. Joining the military was just the done thing, it was how the atmosphere was at the time.

I was still a kid, so I just believed what I was taught. So, when the guys from my neighbourhood or my relatives were sent to the front, I saw them off happily. Waving a little flag, calling out “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” I have photos from when we celebrated my cousin being sent off. At the time, when the red paper came, everyone would send them off, prepared for the fact that they’d probably die in battle. They’d celebrate it.

Life during the war

Every single household would say “For the country, For the country”. We’d have to take the gateposts and iron bars from our house and give them to the government, so they could make them into bullets. Even the brass from the window frames, anything like that.

Food gradually became more and more scarce, we didn’t even have rice to eat. It was a very trying time. It was a very hungry time for everyone. I remember, in the middle of that hunger, soldiers gave us sweets, it was like a dream, shiny and colourful – you pop one in your mouth and think “Wow, there are things that are this tasty!” Even now I still can’t forget that moment. The military had rice, sugar, I think they had everything.


The Nakasako family circa 1939. Father on the left, aunt at the back, Mieko in the middle and Emiko on her mothers lap on the right.

My dad was a teacher at the current Setouchi High School, back then it was the Matsumoto Commercial School.

At home he was very loving. At the time, teachers were not just to be respected, they were seen as being above just about everyone – but at home was just regular old dad. He’d sit my little brother on his knee and eat together. He had a moustache, but he didn’t have a scary persona at all.

The reason he didn’t get called up for military service was that he was seen as necessary, to provide military education to middle schoolers. At Matsumoto School, there were a couple dozen soldiers. They were stationed at the Eastern Parade Grounds, but would sleep in the school buildings.

I have a recollection of going into the gym after hearing a trumpet being blown. Middle school students had to wear gaiters, khaki coloured clothes and soldiers caps or metal helmets. They didn’t have guns, but if they saw something move, they had to be ready and willing to kill, I believe that’s the way the military education worked at the time. Every single day. That’s why it was such a horrible time.

My dad was the eldest son of a farming family from East Hiroshima. They were really very poor. Before the war, everyone from his relatives to his siblings to his parents thought “The eldest has to take on the farm!”, he said “In these times we need to get an education.” This was before I was born, in the mid-1920s. It’s not like he was disowned, but no matter how many times he tried to explain his feelings to them they wouldn’t understand, so they agreed to let him go get an education on the condition that he come back to help with the farming on the weekends. So, he had the farm left to his younger brother. The Matsumoto that founded Matsumoto Commercial School was apparently a relative of mine. Dad got his teaching qualification on the job.

Apparently he said, “People from now on can’t simply stay as peasant farmers.” I heard from my aunt. After that, he bought the house three doors down from Matsumoto School in Onaga, he took my little sisters in and looked after them.


Mother with her children, Mieko on the left, Emiko in the middle and her little brother on the right.

My mum was kind to everyone. Not just with our immediate family, but with dad’s sisters and brothers, but her own as well; she took care of everybody. She was from Hatsukaichi city.

In the olden days, girls were brought up to sew, make tea and arrange flowers. Having those skills was what made you a woman. Mum taught sewing from our house. She took in all the girls. When I was little, I had too many family members to keep track of, so I didn’t know who was family and who wasn’t. In my mum’s words: “If I was by myself, I’d have to raise the kids and take care of the house. Because all of your ‘sisters’ come to help, I’m able to take care of you all.”

Lots of people told me how my mum had helped them or taken care of them. Like “Because your mum came, I stayed on the right path.” Even if they tried really hard and got a university education, there was no jobs for those from the buraku (effectively slums in which people who worked ‘dirty’ jobs like butchers and undertakers lived with their families; these people faced and still face deep discrimination today). “Just when I was about to join a gang, your mum reached out to me and saved me”. I think that because she’d lost children herself, she could treat them like her own.

I think discrimination is something that is taught, kids only know it because their parents impart it to them. When I went to my friend’s house, they made sukiyaki (beef hot pot) for us. Right after the war, there wasn’t any such thing as sukiyaki in most places. There was no meat to put in it. At my house, if there was vegetables and tofu to eat, that was a good night. Then my friend’s family gave me sukiyaki that was full of meat. When I got home, I’d tell my mum “It was sukiyaki, full of meat! It was sooooo good!” Mum had to have known my friend was from the buraku, but she didn’t tell me I couldn’t go visit or anything. Thinking back, I was never taught to discriminate against those from the buraku.

My older sister, Mieko

Mieko Nakasako, in traditional dress, performing buyo dance.

My sister was what a real leader, she pulled everyone into line and was called “Miss Class President”. At the time, the boys were the leaders, and the girls were below them. Before the war, co-ed schools weren’t a thing you see. My sister making it into the Daiichi Girls School was a point of pride for my parents. Only two girls were picked to get in from primary school. As the war got really intense, we weren’t able to get any of her graduation photos, nor her photos from when she started school there.

She was just a normal 12-year-old girl. Chatting with her friends in the curtains and stuff. I think she was a good sister. When I hear people who still have their sisters talking about them, I think about what life would have been like if she lived.

It’s complicated. After she died, everyone would say things. The neighbours would tell mum how my sister was smart and beautiful. I know they were likely meaning it in a sympathetic way, but listening from the other side of the wall, there were times that I felt sorry for myself. Like “Why was I the one to survive?” So I’d take it out on my parents. If they told me “get studying”, I’d just say “yeah yeah.” When my mum tried to teach me to sew, I’d just tell her “I’ll never sew, I’m never going to wear a kimono anyway.”

I’ve still got a letter my sister sent our cousin. When she was in her first year at Daiichi Girls School, she sent our cousin who was off to the front a letter, but it got returned to us. Apparently he hadn’t been sent off yet. It’s written on paper from the time. At the end, it’s signed “Hiroshima Prefectural Hiroshima Daiichi High School, Mieko Nakasako.” Would kids these days write something like that? This is the only thing of hers I have left. We didn’t find her bones or anything.

The sixth of August, 1945

My lost sister

A baby Emiko in her mother’s arms, Mieko is pictured on the right. She was never seen again after leaving home for a school work group on the morning of August 6th, 1945.

I had been evacuated to the countryside in Hatsukaichi from Hiroshima. But my cousin’s red paper had come, so we all went to Hiroshima Station to see him off.  During the two days I had been back home in Onaga, the atomic bomb was dropped. My mum and I ran away to the Eastern Parade Grounds. Dad was leading a group of students and working in Danbara at the time.

Before the war, I think I was just the daughter of a normal family. The bomb really changed not just my, but every single persons’ lives.

After the air raid sirens were cancelled, my 12-year-old sister was full of life when she called out “I’ll see you later!” and left for work.  She still hasn’t come back. That’s why I’m always telling my story. Try and imagine. One of your family members, your brother, your sister, full of life telling you “I’ll see you later!”, then just never coming back.

Dobashi was where she was supposed to meet for work. I know that. After the bomb was dropped, nobody has any idea what she did or where she went. So now I think I’d be happy if it was a direct hit, an instant death. Without running around aimlessly in dreadful pain.

My parents searched as hard as they could for my sister. My mum was pregnant at the time, she miscarried. But still they kept saying that if we hadn’t found her body, she must be alive, somewhere.

Her name wasn’t put in the memorial cenotaph in the Peace Park. My parents were just so determined, searching for her. Thinking now, I don’t think a death certificate was ever even issued.

On the 50th anniversary of her death I inquired and knew for the first time. I told them, “Her name was Mieko Nakasako.” and they told me, “Her name’s not in there.” From 12 years after the war, it was made such that if a victim died, their name was automatically put in there. So that means that if her name isn’t in there, there was never any death certificate made. So that got me thinking, there’s got to be a lot of other people that just vanished like her. There were whole families just completely wiped out.

We never had a funeral for her. Hmm, maybe there was one about five years after the bombing. I can’t recall. I don’t think there was. We could never make anything like a grave, everyone just placed stones like Buddha statues, thought that they held the spirits of their kids, and left. Not even my sister’s bones were left. Thinking that it was their daughter, they just placed the stones. Inside and around temples. I just remember that when my mum saw a stone, she’d put her hands together and pray. That’s all she could do.

The whole city of Hiroshima was wiped out. They say that 70,000 people died straight away, but it’s not like anyone ever counted them. It’s all just estimates. There are seven rivers running through the city and everyone just jumped into them, they could have been washed out to sea. No-one knows how many people died in Hiroshima. With just a single nuclear bomb, not just people, but many forms of life, flowers, trees, animals, they were all wiped out.

In places like the Memorial Tower and the Peace Museum they keep their names and pictures forever, but of course you have to properly apply and supply photos in order to have it done.

More than 6300 kids who were out doing demolition work were killed, 12, 13-year-olds. My sister was one of them. It’s unforgivable, things that wipe out so many kids like that. Try and say it, just a 12-year-old girl, a grade six or seven girl. She couldn’t buy lots of clothes. She was forced into labour, demolishing buildings and such. Al the things they carried and wore at the time, the hats, the uniforms, the buttons, the belts, the buckles, the lunch boxes. All those things in the museum aren’t replicas. Those are all that remains of kids who were only 12-13 at the time. So when kids come on school trips I tell them to just take that in. I tell them, “They aren’t fakes. They’re the relics left behind by the children who died.”

I’ve been to a memorial service for those from the Daiichi Girls School. I saw an article saying that a former student, Ms. Shishido was holding a fiftieth anniversary memorial service in the Chugoku Shinbun. In my case, my parents had died a long time ago, and our address had changed anyway, so there was no way for them to contact me. So, I called Ms. Shishido on the phone. “I’m the little sister of one of the former students, can I still attend the service?”

Daiichi was really a very elite school. Everybody wished they could go there. So having gotten in, my sister was having a good time there, despite the war raging around her. It was a time where you really couldn’t get any sort of study done, but you could still be with friends, dress up, make bags out of old sashes and she was having fun going to school and doing that, the survivors I met told me.

At the service, I met two people who survived the bombing because they were home sick from school on the day. When I told them that I was Mieko’s little sister, some of the survivors went pale. One of them was from the same primary school as my sister and I, Onaga Higashi, their name was Takeda. They were really close with Mieko. On the day they were at home, sick. She’s living in Yokohama now, but came back to Hiroshima for the 50th anniversary.

Of course, I knew what my sister was up to because, well, she was my sister, but I always wondered what she was doing for schooling in the four months between actually getting into Daiichi and the bomb being dropped. I wanted to hear more about my sister, anything was fine, so I asked, “Can you tell me your story?” But, it seemed that she was feeling a great guilt for having survived. “I’m sorry…” she said, and shook her head. Even though we were from the same school and similar backgrounds, I felt bad afterwards for having asked.

So I never did get to hear those stories. I felt that, she had lived her whole life with a silent pain in her heart, constantly guilty for having lived. I felt sorry for her.

I hear that on that day, there were schools where they didn’t head to work and not a single person died. It was a real fine line. In that war. Life could be taken away in the most sudden possible moment. The students were just doing as the school had told them to. 12-13-year-olds, they didn’t deserve to have their lives taken.

I Hate Sunsets

A few times every year there are times where the sky is dyed a deep red at sunset. So red that even people on the ground’s faces are turned red. On those days, I can’t help but think of sunset on the day that the bomb was dropped. I hate sunsets. From where I was, it was blood red. For three days and three nights, the city burnt. Even now, 73 years later, I don’t want to think about that time. On the 6th of August, there was nothing I could do to help the people who were strewn, dying amongst the rubble; I left them and ran.

I still can’t forget the eyes of a little girl who clung on to my pants and begged, “Help me, help me…” I couldn’t help, but she was really imploring me. Kneeling in the rubble, begging for my help. Those eyes. I can never forget. I just had to leave her and run.

The evacuation points were the Primary School I was attending, and the school my dad was working at, but the buildings had been twisted out of shape. As if they had gone mad. They weren’t very strong buildings. You see, everything was made out of wood in those days. The buildings were enveloped in flames, it was as if the flames were crazy, chasing down the buildings. Lots of rubble had been blown underneath the building, and people were still strewn amongst it. The flames came down and many people were killed there. I left and ran away to Yamate. After that, a strong wind came, I checked afterwards and it seems that the direction of the wind changed, but I had to leave many still living people behind there, there was just nothing that I could do.

I didn’t know what time I had. I can’t recall at what time the fire started, but the flames came chasing, I can never forget that I had to leave many still living people behind.

A student from Motomachi High School drew me a picture of my experience afterwards from my story. Even if I tell my story, 15-year-old kids these days have no experience of crazy flames chasing them or hell-like fires starting, so it’s hard for them to understand. Even so, they tried their hardest to draw it for me.

People really have no idea how suddenly things can happen. It was a very fine line (between survival and death). The direction of the wind changed (points at the map), and so the flames stopped here. If it didn’t change, then I would have been caught in the flames. All the survivors around moved as one and evacuated to the Eastern Parade Grounds, where the military trained. Everyone was burnt. Fires kept popping up everywhere, to get away, you simply had to go through them. Amongst all of this, there were kids that had gotten lost. I can still hear them calling out, “Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum”. Everyone else from my primary school had been evacuated to the countryside, so I was pretty much the only one to be hit by the bomb. A few other kids from my neighbourhood were also hit though.

No matter when, it always ends up being innocent children that are hurt most. I was only eight at the time. My sister had hopes and dreams for middle school. At the time, getting into middle school was a special thing. But after she got in, she hadn’t spent a single day studying. Every single day, she was out working, demolishing buildings for her country, for her family. A 12, 13-year-old child.

I recently studied at the temple in Onaga with 10 people who had applied from all over the country. Starting from Nigitsu Shrine behind where the Eastern Parade Grounds were located, we went around on a tour to seven temples and shrines. One of those, Onaga Tenmangu, is where the god of study resides, so kids would have their written wishes hung there for luck. When we were kids, we used to go there often, on New Year’s and such. I had mine hung there too.

Walking there again, I thought back, I remember this place. Until I visited, I had completely forgotten it existed. When I evacuated, the temple that had looked after me so well when I was young, going back again brought it all back. “Over where this bathroom is, lots of people died.” Things like that. Everybody wanted water. The lanterns and lion statues around the temple grounds were all charred too. The colour on the outside was different, but it’s still all there. The buildings are on a slant, the tiles had mostly been replaced, but there were still some that were there at the time. Pillars with bits of glass sticking into them and such.

The Eastern Parade Grounds were full of corpses. Everyone was facing up, trying to evacuate to higher and higher places. At the time, there were hundreds, thousands of dead people, that we just left behind, we had no way to do anything. Even so, I believe the temple made offerings to try and help their souls. There were so many unidentifiable people, people that couldn’t make it home. The majority of soldiers still had their uniforms, but normal people and children really had nothing left. I’m thankful for the monks at the temple, because we really couldn’t do anything. Everyone was too focused on getting away, as fast as possible.

In my immediate family, I lost my sister, and in total, I lost five relatives. My dad’s little sister was one. Apparently, she was part of the teishin-tai (The Women’s Voluntary Work Corps). All I know is that she evacuated from Jogakuin to Sentei (presently known as Shukkeien). Her friends were together with her, but at Sentei they got split up and don’t know what happened afterwards. Nobody knows which direction she evacuated to after that. My aunt was living right in front of the Matobacho tram stop at the time. Under the ground there, they found three skeletons, so we know that people died there. We know people died there because we found their bones, but like my sister, we have no idea what happened after they gathered.

Even so, I still had my parents. They were desperately searching for my sister. So it’s not like I was spoilt. Nobody had a taste of ‘normal family life’ for more than five years after the war. Even more so the kids that were orphaned, they really had to fend for themselves.

My hair was falling out, I was bleeding from my gums. I was constantly exhausted, and always had to lie down. I was told it was ‘flash sickness’. Because nobody at the time had any idea what radiation was. Afterwards, I was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia.

The other day, I had cataracts surgery, but as I thought, the recovery is slow. I get so tired.


English Translation by Liam Walsh


Part two is available now here: please take a look.


Spreading Peace through Animation

Created by founder of the Funkor Child Art Center Fauzia Minallah, and produced by ANT-Hiroshima, the animated short-film “Amai and Sadako’s Prayer” won first place in the 2018 MY HERO film festival.

Telling the story of Amai, the bird of light, along with her friends Babai and Janoo as they travel the world and meet Bibi, a girl from a war-torn country. Amai tells them the story of Sadako, another innocent victim of war, teaching the three of about hope, friendship and peace.

It was received very well by attendees at the festival. A Japanese-language version is also in the works at the moment as well. Please, do take a look at “Amai and Sadako’s Prayer” below.



Winners of Peace Poster Contest Pay Visit to ANT-Hiroshima

The winners of a peace poster contest, sponsored by Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture, paid a visit to the ANT-Hiroshima office in October. Serving as “Sagamihara City Peace Ambassadors,” Taisei Umezawa and Hiyori Yokoyama came to Hiroshima to learn about the atomic bombing and issues involving nuclear abolition and peace. Tomoko Watanabe, the executive director of ANT-Hiroshima, welcomed the two students and shared the details of her peace-building work with them.

With a desire to advance peace education efforts in the city, Sagamihara’s Citizens’ Peace Forum called for submissions of peace posters from local elementary school and junior high school students. A total of 298 posters were received, with 169 posters created by elementary school students and 129 posters created by junior high school students. One Grand Prize was then given to each of these two groups. The winning posters, along with 30 others that were selected, are being displayed in Sagamihara during the month of November.

The winning poster from the elementary school submissions is titled “For a Peaceful Future” and was made by Taisei Umezawa, a sixth grader at Ono Elementary School. Incorporating the idea of diversity, with people, animals, plants, and the A-bomb Dome in the background, the colorful poster conveys an energetic future of lives lived in peace.

The Grand Prize for the junior high school submissions was awarded to

 Hiyori Yokoyama, a third-year student at Unomori Junior High School. Her poster features a paper crane that bears symbols of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With a message of peace and the lessons learned from the A-bombed cities, the paper crane is flying over the globe and passing on the spirit of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the world. “Spreading the Message of Peace” is the title of her poster.

ANT-Hiroshima congratulates these two students, as well as all the young people who took part in this peace poster contest. With their vision, and their efforts, they will surely help to build stronger and wider peace in the world.


ICAN’s Tim Wright Speaks with Young People in Hiroshima

ICAN Treaty Coordinator Tim Wright visited Hiroshima 20-23 July 2018 at the invitation of the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper, Hiroshima City University, and Nagasaki University’s RECNA as the keynote speaker at their symposium “Opening the Door to Peace: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and Beyond.” In addition to the symposium, Tim spoke at an event organized by HANWA and ANT-Hiroshima for members of the Hiroshima NGO community, as well as at a casual event for youths titled “What’s ICAN?” And there was another, completely unpublicized event during which Tim gave a handful of Hiroshima’s young people an inside look at ICAN’s campaign. With a focus on the latter, I’d like to expand on some of the lessons Tim shared.

Tim offered no less than 15 examples of actions and campaign methods that ICAN and its partners have implemented over the years. Actions included educating the public on the streets about nuclear weapons, making fun videos, civil disobedience, musical performances, branding, generating one’s own media, and positive messaging through demonstrations thanking supportive governments. In addition to actions that build public attention and support, campaigners employ a number of methods for lobbying politicians, including briefings, asking them to sign ICAN’s Parliamentarian Pledge, meeting with diplomats, and always making sure to speak with people from multiple political parties.

What happens at a campaigners’ meeting? The largest meetings, which can have 500 participants or more, are usually used to motivate rather than plan. Smaller meetings, which can still include representatives from up to 50 nations, are used to generate concrete, practical tasks for campaigners to carry out in their various countries. Discussions, rather than presentations, dominate these meetings, and campaigners will often break into small groups (divided thematically or by region) to generate ideas. The importance of making meetings fun cannot be undervalued, and this can be accomplished through collaborating with artists, holding social events, or involving a celebrity guest.

One participant asked how members of ICAN work through differences of opinion. Tim advised that everyone should have a chance to voice their opinion and that, if possible, decisions should be made through consensus. Avoid voting unless there is literally no other way to move a discussion forward. It’s natural that in any given group, many people are confident that their way is the right way. Differences of opinion are easier to work through, however, when the group has clear goals and a clear division of responsibilities. When the goals and tasks themselves are unclear, personality disputes magnify. 

Another participant asked about the role of intersectionality in ICAN’s campaign. Although ICAN has focused goals — create a nuclear ban treaty, then make it work — Tim said the campaign consciously tries to create a diverse movement. Along with making sure campaigners don’t all come from Western countries, ICAN also highlights the connections been nuclear weapons and other systems of power and oppression, such as patriarchy or colonialism. Bringing in speakers or partners who also work on other issues expands campaigners’ understanding of the complexities of the nuclear abolition movement. (And by the way, don’t forget to check out IQAN.)

According to Tim, the US, UK, and France are actively lobbying countries not to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. France, for example, is pressuring its former colonies not to sign, but Tim wonders whether this might have the opposite effect. He encourages the former French colonies in Africa to sign the treaty as a group to stand in opposition to their one-time colonizer. Nations are sovereign entities and therefore cannot be told what to do by other countries. Tim (almost cheekily) noted that signing the treaty is the best way for a country to put an end to pressure from the nuclear powers.

Tim’s most powerful message was one of empowerment. He began his talk by emphasizing that much of ICAN’s campaign was organized by young people, and he concluded by saying “You don’t need to ask for permission — just do.” Everyone in Hiroshima, including but not limited to hibakusha, is in a powerful position to advocate for nuclear disarmament. And there is no reason to limit the focus of one’s advocacy to one’s own government.

In order to galvanize support for banning nuclear weapons, it is not enough to teach their horrifying reality — it is equally as important to instill a belief in each individual’s power to create change. Trying to abolish nuclear weapons by using all one’s energy to convert firm believers in deterrence isn’t necessarily strategic. Rather, there are a huge number of passive supporters of disarmament who remain quiet because they think that it’s impossible to achieve a nuclear-free world, that their voice, even if raised, would only fall on deaf ears, or that there is an impenetrable divide between themselves and their government. A strategic movement can change all that.

Every step of the process to create the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was said to be impossible. The creation of a UN working group that eventually recommended treaty negotiations, the negotiation process itself, the adoption of the treaty, and now its entry into force. “Don’t believe what people say is impossible,” responds Tim.


Green Legacy Hiroshima