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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 was saying (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

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