This is part three 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.
Part two, in which Okada-san speaks of her life and struggles following the bombing, can be accessed here.
“What can you do for world peace?”
My meeting with Barbara
I looked in the Chugoku Shinbun and an article titled “What can you do for world peace?” leapt out at me. I was 49 at the time, and it was an article by the World Friendship Centre. They were searching for people to undertake activities in the US. Until then, I’d only known dressmaking, I’d been completely focused on making ends meet and hadn’t given any thought to world peace.
It was a completely different world to me. One that wasn’t just Hiroshima. I’d only seen America in movies. Gone with the Wind and such. It was like a dream. I’d only thought that America must be super bright and fun.
When I went to the World Friendship Centre for the first time, it was filled with people I’d never met before. Lots of foreigners, doctors and other hibakusha. So I thought that it was the type of place that people go to meet hibakusha.
About 14 or 15 Japanese people all gave their self-introductions, in English. When my turn came, I said in Japanese “maybe I can do this in English, but it’ll take about three years, so I’ll do it in Hiroshima dialect”. I didn’t think that I’d ever want to go back.
But I am a hibakusha, and I applied anyway. Then a month later, I got a call saying “Okada-san, we’ve decided to send you to America.” I was beyond shocked, why would they pick me? I can’t even speak English!
I just went as a hibakusha. I didn’t have anything to write on my resume, so I just wrote buyo dancing. Buyo, tea ceremony, flower arrangement. They’d read that and decided that I was the most suitable to introduce Japanese culture overseas. So I had to get serious about it.
My first trip to the US (1987)
I went with a couple of teachers who were teaching peace studies at high schools, and Mrs. Yamashita, who came as our interpreter. At the time it was 360 yen to the dollar. I just went along not knowing what to expect. We were there for three weeks. We started from the west coast, went through Chicago, then on to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Seattle, about 40 different places. We had different places to go in the morning and the afternoon. Thinking back, that was the most fun thing about the trip.
Barbara Reynolds first met us at Long Beach. I did remember what happened when I was 8 after the bombing, but I’d never actually testified. Apparently, most Americans don’t want to see or hear about the great damage inflicted.
Barbara organised everything for us, so I was told that it was fine to just go to the places she told us, show the photos and panels from the bombing and tell my story, what I remember. She was very quiet, she didn’t say much. She just introduced us all.
One of the teachers was really able to talk about everything as a hibakusha, the bombing and devastation, the aftereffects of the bombing and the disease it caused, how they lived during and after the war, and the discrimination they faced, they could talk about it all. I went along with Barbara to primary schools, discussing my experiences. Barbara was teaching the students about the story of Sadako. So I said, let’s all fold cranes and be friends. After that, I told them all my story, of how I was 8 and so many kids were killed and became victims of the bombing.
We had tea after that. I think the best way to have western people enjoy the tea ceremony is to do it outside, rather than inside as traditionally done. They asked me to do the flowers and I agreed happily and went along to a florist, and was told to pick any flowers I wanted. I thought the flowers there were much prettier than Japan, no matter where you looked from, they were always beautiful.
I picked the chrysanthemums and split them in to two pots. Big ones over here, little ones over there. TV cameras came, and asked me to explain the whole process, which caused a lot of trouble for our interpreter. In Japanese, we say heaven, earth and man for the process of splitting flowers into three, but there was no way to get that across to the folks in the US, so we just explained it as “1-2-3!”, because we split the centre of the flower into three. They asked me what it was called, and I just told them it was called “peace”. Why? Because the divided nature of the world means that achieving peace is difficult. I couldn’t tell if they were convinced or not, but they all gave us thundering applause, so I just did the peace sign.
The interpreter was really serious, so she’d make sure if we were really okay to say that since it would be on TV and all. “It’s fine! This is America after all.” I told her.
She passed away a while ago. I got the opportunity to meet lots of children and go to lots of old folks’ homes to speak about my experience. To teach them of Japanese dance, how we say “arigato” instead of “thank you” and such. The kids thought it was fun when I told them that Japanese people bow as a greeting. It was easier for them to take in than the stories of the bombing. Americans use knives, forks and spoons, Japanese people use chopsticks and such. They’d ask why we use them, and I’d explain how it’s to show your appreciation to the food by sitting properly. Like christians pray before eating. After I told them that, how we are thankful to food and say thank you to the farmers and chefs by bowing to them, the kids took it in and started bowing as well.
America’s a big place. I saw many different perspectives during my time there. We went to a little village outside of Seattle, with a few thousand people living there. Like a camping ground. At one primary school, I introduced myself as being from Hiroshima. They were all in the fifth grade. We opened up a world map and I noticed differences; all the maps I’d looked at until now had Japan in the middle. Those maps had America in the middle and Japan, China and Korea on the left. When I introduced myself, a little girl asked me if I was from “those Korean islands”, she thought Asia was just one big mass. For the first time, I seriously thought that Japan and other Asian countries need to get along better. We think we’re all so different, Korea, China, Japan, but we’re not really, there’s no need to discriminate. I realised how ignorant people are, and how they must be more humble.
Not just kids, I went to town halls, universities, Sunday schools, churches, a ton of different places. But adults’ reactions were weird. They’d listen to everything I had to say, but no matter where I was, university or church, afterwards everybody would start saying how “Pearl Harbour was first!”, everybody. I didn’t know anywhere near enough about the bombing, but if people just constantly go on about how “Pearl Harbour was first! Japan was first!” we could never become friends.
Over the course of the three weeks, I spoke about a bunch of different things with Barbara. She said that she was so poor that she didn’t have to pay tax. When she came to meet us, she was driving a Japanese car that had its roof caved in a bit. She’d put the petrol in herself and pay in $1 bills.
I was fine with telling my story of the bombing, but seeing people like her struggling in what was supposed be the strongest, winningest country in the world made me think. Because America thinks that they just dropped a new type of bomb and that was that, there’s absolutely nobody who can bring them back to peace but themselves. But if I know nothing else, I know the power of the atomic bomb. She told me that people there didn’t have any desire to build peace. I think that peace only takes shape when everybody wishes and works together for it. She told me that there can never be peace when weapons and violence flourish. She told me no matter whether in Japan or America, to become the sort of person that creates peace themselves.
I asked her what I should do after getting back to Japan and she told me that I didn’t need to do anything special. Just do what I can.
So that’s how I started being involved with the peace movement. I felt that I wanted to spread it around the world.
I got back to Japan and started studying. I didn’t know enough about the atomic bombing at all. I could talk about what I went through and what I saw, but I couldn’t answer when asked why it was dropped on Hiroshima. When I was asked “Why did America pick Hiroshima?” I hadn’t studied any of that before.
I was born in 1937. The year that the second Sino-Japanese War started. Then four years later the Pacific War. I got home, and researched why they felt they had to drop it on Hiroshima. I worked out that both the Pacific War and the Sino-Japanese war were started by Japan.
I learnt of all the atrocious things imperial Japan carried out across Asia and how it hurt so many, and felt incredibly apologetic to them as a Japanese person.
I researched further, and looked into the Battle of Okinawa. In Okinawa, girls the same age as my sister killed themselves, kids that couldn’t do it were killed in shelters and dugouts, they were only 12, 13. I realised for the first time that it wasn’t just Hiroshima’s children that were affected. In 1988 I went to visit and learn more.
Then I studied the Gulf War, and the Vietnam War. The Nanking massacre. All wars are just started by a few with power, and those who are actually hurt by it are, as in Vietnam and all other wars, regular people and children. The use of agent orange and all the birth defects it caused and such.
I also researched landmines, after hearing that the landmines Japan made had high killing power. There was a company in Hiroshima making parts for landmines. Because they were just making parts, the people working there had no idea what they were really making. The company would take them to conflict zones, assemble them and then sell them. I heard that Japanese landmines were being sold for around 300 yen at the time. Landmines are made specifically to maim people, even if they don’t kill, to blow off their arms and legs, stop them being able to work and live normally.
In 1997, I did a survey with a few other people, asking people on the street if they knew of landmines. We were handing out flyers. The vast majority didn’t know anything about them, their attitude was like “That’s a problem for other countries isn’t it?”
I wrote a letter to then prime minister Hashimoto. I’d heard that there were around 300 landmines at the JSDF base in Gotenba. They’d been left to lie outside for years, and I thought that they ought to be removed as we were paying tax and all. As a hibakusha, I couldn’t stay silent. So I sent a letter demanding to know what the government intended to do about it.
Every country wants them, they’re sold for just 300 yen, they’re cheap and easy to get, I couldn’t stay silent knowing that these things were being used so frequently. I heard that Cambodia suffered the most damage from landmines. When removing them, the army would work out where they are with machines, then make women from minority groups actually dig them out. I got a letter from a Nakamura who was working for the Japan International Cooperation Agency near the Mekong River. They were trying to build bridges and roads, but landmines were just spread around everywhere indiscriminately. There were some that were shaped like butterflies, spread in places that kids were likely to play. Of course, it was extremely dangerous for the kids, so they were paying minority women ~50 yen for each mine they dug out. If one went off, they would never work again. Trading their lives for 50 yen, “What are these people thinking?” I said. I haven’t been there directly, but I’ve heard information from people who have lived and worked there.
Japanese people think that landmines are just something for other countries to deal with. Nobody takes it seriously.
This was right around the time it was reported that Princess Diana was giving support to children who had been maimed by landmines. At the same time Jodie Williams, an American woman who had been working to rid the world of landmines won the Nobel Peace Prize. It made me realise even one person working by themselves can make a difference. When she was gathering signatures, we helped by getting people to sign in Hiroshima. I wanted to say that we in Japan also support the eradication of landmines. I think we got around 200 pages worth of signatures.
Not for Japan, not for somebody else. I did it because I hate seeing children being turned into victims like that. In Vietnam, so many kids were made victims. In Cambodia, there were so many kids who had to work salvaging things to sell from rubbish dumps after their parents were maimed, otherwise none of them could eat. I can never comprehend how one could put children through such torture.
My happiness – My Grandchildren
I couldn’t tell anyone “I’m going to be a grandma!”
I’m lucky enough to have had the support of everybody around me to allow me to do what I do now, but thinking of all the other hibakusha, I feel that I’m really being spoiled. I’ve lost my parents and siblings, but I have a family, children, and now grandchildren too. When my first grandchild was born, I was bursting with joy, so I wanted to tell everybody “Listen, Listen, I have a grandchild!”. After talking about it, I realised that the majority of hibakusha could never get married, so many of them didn’t have families of their own. I really shouldn’t have said anything about my grandkids.
People refer to me as an “atomic bomb surviving testifier”, but I’ve never even once said “I’m going to testify about the bombing”. I can’t. I’m too blessed. In the Hiroshima city group of hibakusha, there are about 30 people at the moment. Most of them couldn’t get married. Even the ones that could, many of them couldn’t have children. They were often cut out of people’s lives once they were known to be a hibakusha. Then the partners who did marry hibakusha anyway, were often cut off completely by their parents, relatives and acquaintances.
My husband was evacuated to the countryside, but came into the city soon after the bombing, so he was an indirect hibakusha. He was sheltering at a temple outside of the city, and came back ten days after the bombing, he walked all over the burning, radiated city. His family home was in Niho, so I heard he walked all the way there, but not the details.
When my daughter got back from her honeymoon, she had a dry cough and was saying that she had a slight temperature, so I told her to go get some medicine from the hospital. She was working at JTB (a travel agency) in Kamiya-cho at the time. She went to the Kawamura Hospital because it was the closest one to her workplace. A month passed by and she didn’t get any better, so the doctors there gave her an urgent referral to the Hibakusha Hospital. I went along with her.
The hematologist there asked her “Is there anyone in your immediate family who was directly affected by the atomic bombing?”, and she just said “Yes, my parents are both hibakusha.” She still didn’t realise that us being affected by the bombing had any effect on her, but the doctor told her after many tests that she had sudden aplastic anaemia. That means your blood gets thinner and thinner. When your blood gets thinner, you get purple patches all over. We all had lots of those after the bombing. I was shocked. Until then, I’d never thought about my genes or the aftereffects of the bombing. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done about me. But I never imagined that my daughter would be affected. She had just gotten back from her honeymoon, and because her husband was from Okayama, not Hiroshima, he didn’t know anything about the bombing. I started shaking. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my son-in-law cut us off when he found out. His family were all looking forward to grandchildren so much, he was an only child after all. I put my hands together and apologised profusely. To the parents and her husband. I really thought that they’d cut us off.
When she was hospitalised, and given treatments to improve the quality of her blood, it’d be good for a while. Then she’d go back to normal life for a while and it’d get worse again. When she was being medicated and repeatedly spending periods in hospital and at home, her doctor told us that if her body didn’t start to improve its blood by itself, then grandchildren likely wouldn’t be on the cards. They hadn’t actually recognised radiation sickness as a thing at the time.
I felt terrible, it had become such a big issue, but the only thing I could do was leave it to her doctor. As her mother, there was nothing I could do. Usually when you’re the parent, you can do something that makes it all better. But I couldn’t do anything. At all. I felt hollow.
Her job was difficult too. Once you’ve been working there for 10 years, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman at JTB. You have to move to a different office, or you’ll be sent overseas, you have to follow whatever you’re told and carry out the job. She had people under her and had to train them. Then they had to up their results every year too.
Her in-laws didn’t cut us off. After two years, her blood quality started improving by itself, and she was given the all-clear to get pregnant. The Hibakusha Hospital treated us very seriously and with a lot of care and respect, so everything worked out in the end. The haematologists, the paediatricians, the gynaecologist, the surgeons. It was like they had a group project in her. She was in hospital from the time she got pregnant right up until the birth.
All I could do was pray for her, and that my grandchild would be born safely. It felt really long.
Her first born was named Yuuki, she was born when she was 30. I was just over 60.
I don’t remember what I said at the time at all (laughs). I was just hoping for their safety.
She had a caesarean, so I couldn’t be there with her at all. Parents really can’t do anything at that point. I was just worried.
I’ve had a few children, and once you have it’s not as bad, but the first is always hard. They wanted another child. My daughter and her husband. They had a girl, and now they wanted a boy. Then the second was another girl. Then finally they had twins, who were both girls. Life really doesn’t go as you plan it (laughs).
Their names are a bit of a coincidence. My daughter’s named Yukie. Her husband’s Yukio. They met at middle school in Noboricho, they were in the same class and were close. They were pushed apart at first, as both of their high schools and universities were in different places. When they had a reunion, they met again by chance.
All four of my grandchildren have the character 幸 (happiness; joy) in their names. I don’t know if they’re living up to their names or not though (laughs) Yuuki (幸葵). Sachina (幸菜). Then the twins, Sachika (幸花) and Sachine (幸音). I get really confused by their names being so alike. I just feel really happy that they’re there. They all live in Hiroshima. The two eldest are in their second year at senior school and third year of middle school respectively. The twins are both in year five at primary school.
Working as a Hiroshima Peace Volunteer
From 1999, I started working as a Hiroshima Peace Volunteer. The Hiroshima Peace Museum’s Peace Promotion Division runs the program. I was one of the very first volunteers. I guided countless people around the museum and to the memorials.
At first, I was just volunteering, and didn’t actually tell my story to people. A year after I started volunteering, people from the city council asked me “Since you’re a hibakusha, why don’t you give your testimony?” So that’s how I started giving my testimony to people in the Cultural Centre for Peace in the museum. I’m still doing it today.
Originally, I thought that hibakusha were only people who had visible injuries, keloids and such. Eventually I realised that I fit the bill too and began to tell my story.
Even after I started telling my story, you really get to study as a peace volunteer, so I continued that as well. Whilst doing the volunteering, you get to meet so many different people and hear their own stories and the things they had to go through. I met people from China whose grandparents had been killed by Japanese soldiers, people from Tokyo who spoke of how horrifying the air raids there were. In Tokyo, more than 200,000 people died. By sharing my story, it gave other people the opportunity to share theirs as well. There were so many people my age who said “I was evacuated out to the countryside at the time”, of course they can’t forget their experiences, and want to tell people about them as well. I really felt that.
In the museum, I’d tell them if I noticed things that were a bit off, and get them to fix it. Like the fireball in the panorama, it was too small. The one in real life was much bigger in scale, and had a lot more power about it. The displays with the victims’ clothing and belongings was too high, so people in wheelchairs couldn’t appreciate it. I spent so much time there, so I could help them improve it.
Then for deaf people, for deaf foreigners who have come all the way to Hiroshima, they can’t comprehend Japanese Sign Language. There’s no such thing as international sign language. I searched for such a thing all over Hiroshima. Not just the museum, but in all the different places I could think of, I called and called, but nobody had any information about an international sign language. There’re sign language interpreters here, but they’re few in number. Somebody once replied to me “There’s not many deaf people, so I don’t think any international sign language will ever be introduced.” Without thinking, I told them “Don’t you think we should be treating everybody with respect, even if it’s just a few visitors?” These people come all the way to Hiroshima, spending lots of money to do so. I think it’s very rude to dismiss even the idea of introducing such a service, so I yelled on the phone. The other day, I heard that students were doing sign language interpreting for foreigners at an even, and thought “It’d be nice if the peace museum did this, if someone there learnt it.” I always think it would be good for people to do things that I can’t (laughs) I often get passionate and worked up like that, so people tell me “Okada-san, please calm down! Your blood pressure will go through the roof!” Ah, I’m getting older.
Meeting victims of nuclear accidents (2001)
I went with Doctor Kai of the Juno Group to Kiev, Ukraine. Every year, we bring a few dozen victims who suffered in the Chernobyl disaster to Japan and go to onsens and such. They say how the air is so nice in Japan.
Through my connections from that, and the fact that I am a hibakusha, I was able to go. Kiev is a few dozen kilometres from Chernobyl, so for those who were evacuated from there, it’s just like being evacuated to the countryside as we were during WWII. When the accident happened, apparently, they were told to take two days’ worth of clothes and get on the bus, then they’ve never been able to go back home.
Kiev is a truly breathtaking city. The city is filled with trees, with an abundance of green. Underneath the green, radioactive waste is still buried. You can’t see any signs of radiation above the surface. It’s not something you can see.
There were two cows at a house, in a village we visited. The people I visited told me that the cow was their livelihood, their only income was collecting and selling the milk from the cows. But the cows’ feed was the grass on top of the radiation. They know it’s polluted, but if they run, they wouldn’t have any way to support themselves. They were thankful to the cow for helping them maintain their livelihood. It was their only choice.
If their child got sick and they tried to call an ambulance, they had to pay for the petrol first. Everybody in the town was a victim, so poor they couldn’t even call an ambulance. They all knew that, but they couldn’t move further away, so they just accepted it and went on with life. I heard it from everybody there.
They all gathered in a meeting hall and invited me. I told them that I was a hibakusha from Hiroshima and they asked me “What did the people of Hiroshima eat to get better?” They asked so many questions like “did you eat mushrooms?”
They didn’t have much interest in the damage of the bombing. So I didn’t talk to them about it. Instead, I talked with them about what we ate, how we rebuilt. How I lived during the reconstruction. Kiev is a few dozen kilometres from where the accident was. This year, it’s 33 years since the accident. When I went, it was only 15 years after it.
I visited a primary school. It was a small school, but the principal told me that every student there had cancer. Even 15 years later, the kids who hadn’t directly been affected by the accident, even those born years after it, they had developed cancer. I took a bunch of older microscopes with me from hospitals in Hiroshima, as a gift to the hospitals there. Then the day after I delivered them to the hospital, I found them being sold at a bazaar.
In Japan, doctors study hard, get paid very well, well enough to make regular office workers jealous. But in the Ukraine, their pay isn’t any different. So they needed to do things to make a living. Not for the hospital, but just to live, they sold those microscopes at the bazaar. When we saw that, Doctor Kai said “We brought those form Hiroshima, hoping that children could use them…” But neither of us could say the truth.
The older people had lived as Soviets and even though democracy had come, they preferred the communist era. When they were getting paid properly. They had a system, where you have to be a certain age to get a pension, and many people were forced out of jobs, then had to wait for years to get a pension to replace that income. So it’s like they were telling the older people to hurry up and die already, that’s what it felt like.
I had lots of experiences like that. I crossed the German-Polish border too, on a train. There was just a nonchalant announcement, “We are now entering Poland. “Then the train just kept running through the fields. The only thing that differs is the people managing things on that side. They all looked glum. I didn’t think Germans were particularly happy-looking either, but it was different. I’d say hello and wave with a smile, and they’d just ignore than and ask to see my passport.
I just thought, “Hmmmm… So this is what a border is like.” That’s when I started thinking about how ridiculous a concept borders are.
The World Peace Mission (2005)
I went to Lahore, on the Pakistani side of the India-Pakistan border. It’s usually cut-off, like this side is Pakistan, that one is India. But for one day a year, the border gets opened. Soldiers from each country can come and go freely for that one day a year.
I went as part of the World Peace Mission, along with a journalist from the Chugoku Shinbun. To spread the word of Hiroshima. We lined it up perfectly so that our trip would coincide with the day, so that we could participate as well. The military had a grand parade right in front of us, even though there are poor street children in both countries. I wonder just how much money they threw away on those shows of power.
Even now, in the Middle East, there are so many conflicts, people killing each other, it’s beyond comprehension the amount of weapons flowing in there. In the midst of all the adults’ wars, children have to dig through rubbish to try and find things to eat.
There is a Japanese temple set up over there that take care of homeless children.
Even so, in Japan the kids can go to school every day, eat three meals and not miss out on anything in life. People don’t realise how good they have it these days.
It reminds me of the situation just after the bombing, looking at how the people in India and Pakistan were living. We had no food, like they don’t now. Especially in cases where the whole family had died and left orphaned children behind, nobody would give food to them.
Even now there are kids like that in India and Pakistan. Since going there, I started to appreciate just how peaceful Japan is today. When I showed the photos to primary school students, they couldn’t believe it. If they sold even just their uniforms, they’d have enough to feed all the children. Even kids can understand such things.
Having nuclear weapons is a sign of status, “that country has them, so we have to have them too!” The status of having them makes people in those countries happy because that’s how they were raised. Showing off their new missiles makes them happy too. That’s all how they were raised too. All countries are run by the elite who spend ludicrous amounts of money on militaries and weapons. We heard that a lot of that money was flowing to a nuclear weapons research centre. We visited and saw that it was huge, big and wide like a five-star hotel. They’d tried to make it look incredible, but right outside the gates, there were street children struggling to survive.
There were young mothers with babies too. One of the babies had a fever. We asked why they didn’t go to the hospital, they rolled the wrapped baby around. “If god wills it, they’ll live” is all they could say. They had no other option. Their houses were so cramped that the cows and birds lived inside with the people. In the olden days, farming families in Japan were like that too.
My grandchild was around the same age, so I was even more worried. In Japan, if a baby gets sick you go straight to the hospital. They have plenty of medicines to fix things. Blessed with lots of luxuries that those people couldn’t dream of. They couldn’t do anything.
Okada-san during a 2012 trip to the US.
Travelling with my grandchildren to the UN General Assembly
Talking with my family
I hadn’t talked to my family about my experience after the bombing. Before going to New York, I told them and my grandchildren as well.
They all knew that I was giving my testimony, but I’d never actually spoken to them about it directly. They all knew I’d been a victim of the bombing, but of course they found it hard to ask me about my experience. Of course I don’t want to remember it. I’m so happy my grandkids are healthy and happy, so grateful.
It’s not like I’d planned for a trip with my grandchildren. I was asked whether I’d go to New York as a hibakusha, and simply agreed. Then, my grandchildren asked me, “Where is New York?” So I pulled out the world map and pointed it out for them. Yuuki was in year six at primary school, and she looked at the map and said, “It’s so close!” She told me how close it was. She didn’t realise how far it actually is. Then she told me, “I want to go too!” At first, I didn’t think that she really understood, so I told her “I’m going to tell people my story about what happened after the nuclear bombing”, and she just told me “Yeah? I want to hear it.”
So I took her to the peace museum and had her sit in on one of my testimony sessions. She sat at the back and listened all the way through without saying a word. Afterwards, all she said was, “Did that really happen?”
As I’m a peace volunteer too, I asked her if she wanted to go inside the museum, and she said yes. We walked all over the museum, looking at everything slowly, and she took it all in silently. I think she said “scary” a couple of times.
At the time, the main exhibition was about the 6,300 middle schoolers who were vaporised when the bomb was dropped. The display with all the clothes and lunchboxes that they had on the day. Not replicas, the real things. When I told her that “These are things that 12, 13-year-old middle schoolers were carrying when they were killed”, she was really shocked. She was 12 at the time after all. Kids the same age as her, were really forced to go destroy buildings and walk around in terrible conditions that she and others her age couldn’t even imagine these days.
We got home and though she was just a child, it was like she felt a sense of responsibility to let the world know about Hiroshima. She told my daughter, her mother, that for the first time. We’d been taking her to the peace park since she was 5, but she was always too scared to go inside the museum. All she could say was “scary, scary.” She was even scared of the lanterns at night, she never went near them.
She was told everything for the first time. How her parents had to go through aplastic anaemia for two years before finally having her, everything. I’d written it all down. She was scared, thinking about how if her mother had died from the anaemia, that she wouldn’t have been born at all. Radiation is terrifying.
The first time I took her to the museum, Yuuki asked me, “Why don’t adults just stop wars?” But I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t answer at all. Looking from a child’s perspective, it’s nothing but adults having an argument. That’s all war is. All I could tell her was that the adult world is complicated.
Children haven’t done anything wrong, they don’t understand. The 20th century was a time of conflict. We have to work to make sure the 21st century is a time of peace. But since then, the number of nuclear weapons countries has only grown. Russia, America, China, India, Pakistan, it goes on and on. Even though the damage in Hiroshima was so great, people had their lives destroyed. I have no idea why adults leave those things around, why they insist that they’re necessary.
I don’t think nuclear weapons are the be all and end all of war. Those who start wars, now have nuclear weapons and just threaten each other. I feel like the more weapons a country has, the more the children of that country suffer.
On my own, I have no power, the only thing I can do is tell my story. Everybody in the world needs to work together, to not war with each other, but to build laws that prevent conflict and help children be happy.
To New York (2009)
I told Steven Leeper that Yuuki wanted to go to New York with me, and he contacted the UN for me. Apparently, there had never been somebody under 18 in a UN meeting before.
Anybody, child or adult can enter the UN building, but no children can come to the meeting of the world’s mayors, we were told. Steven argued that she was a third-generation hibakusha for us, and eventually she was granted permission to go with us.
Just as we were leaving from Hiroshima Airport, Steven told us that he had just gotten a message saying that they wanted Yuuki to give a ten-minute speech as well. I was happy, but had to leap into action right away. We didn’t have anything prepared.
I told her on the plane, “They want you to give a speech for 10 whole minutes.” We started thinking together about what she’d say. We had a cameraman and director from NHK moving around with us the whole time, and they gave her the idea to write things down. She wrote down a bunch of dot points, “If my grandma or my mum had died, I wouldn’t be here today.” Looking at the peace museum, she realised that nuclear weapons could never bring peace. They killed lots of people and spread radiation across Hiroshima. She learnt that the survivors had serious aftereffects, and that they had to deal with awful discrimination. She asked them, “Mayors of the world, please, make a world without nuclear weapons.”
She did it with no rehearsal, but she managed to say it perfectly. I was so nervous for her that I don’t actually remember properly.
Up on the stage were mayors from all over the world, Mr. Akiba from Hiroshima, Mr. Taue from Nagasaki. They were all lined up. It was decided that Yuuki and I would give our speeches as part of the opening, before the conference commenced. In front of all these hundreds of mayors, so many I couldn’t count them, we gave our speeches, whilst a woman named Elizabeth interpreted for us in real-time. NHK broadcast it to the world, but I had no idea what it looked like or if anyone was watching, so I just spoke as normal. I think it’s better not to know those things (laughs).
When it finished, the mayors all streamed down off the stage. The mayor of a town in Ohio came over and took a photo out of his jacket and he said, “These are my seven grandchildren.” “This one’s this age, this one’s this age” and so on. He was showing Yuuki the photos. While sitting on stage, he had such a stern look on his face, but when talking to Yuuki, his face was so bright, and he had a big smile. Completely different countries, completely different ages, not speaking each other’s languages, but he smiled and tried his best to communicate. He thanked her, said that “your speech was moving and reassuring, it gives me hope for you and my grandchildren’s generation.” “When I get home, I’ll tell my grandkids about your speech.” As Elizabeth was interpreting between them, I thought, “this is what peace is.” It’s fine to put on a tough face and debate each other, but the world gets closer through bright, happy conversations. They gave us a thundering round of applause.
It was at that time that I remembered what Barbara had said to me, “Instead of weapons and violence, we should be having heart to hearts with one another.” Peace is built at the person-to-person level. We have the power, we are the ones who make it. I was so confused by people when I first went to America, they’d constantly bring up Pearl Harbour and how it was first and such. If now, 50, 60, 70 years removed from the war, we all still argue about whether it was Pearl Harbour or Hiroshima or whatever, it’ll go on forever. It mustn’t. It’s not a problem for just Hiroshima or just America, it’s a global problem now. We’re all citizens of the Earth. I really thought that I have to work so that the people of the world can get along, they can meet, shake hands and become closer. I can’t do anything difficult. I can’t give complicated speeches, I haven’t studied much. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Asian or anything else. The only way for world peace to be achieved is for everybody to get along.
Okada-san during a 2012 trip to the US.
The American Atomic Bombing Exhibition (2007)
I’d been to America before going to the UN. As part of the American Atomic Bombing Exhibition, us hibakusha took it in turns to go over and give our stories.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, but when the chance came up, I put my hand up to go. If they’d asked me for the year after or the one after that then I don’t know what kind of shaped I’d be in, so I wanted to take the chance. They said that we’d be going in turns, but I told them that I’d go that year. You can’t go back in time, there are many things I have to learn, but regardless I have to keep moving forward.
When I first went to America, I realised that they didn’t really know anything about Hiroshima.
All the old folks still talk only about Pearl Harbour, but the school students all think deeply about the fact that their country dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. I even heard people say that my story was the first time that they’d ever heard of Hiroshima. After hearing that their own country had done it, there were many times where girls would cry and tell me they were sorry.
Japan’s like that these days too. Nobody has any actual combat experience or knowledge of what happened during the wars. There are even people from Hiroshima, students, teachers, who have never actually been to the peace park. The number of people who have no idea what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 74 years ago is gradually getting larger. So I’m determined to work as hard as I can on the projects in front of me. I can’t think that far into the future.
I went to South America too for the exhibition, in turn with other hibakusha. I’ve been to countless countries to tell my story.
English Translation by Liam Walsh
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