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Hibakusha: For A-bomb survivor and activist, key to future is young generations

When atomic bomb survivor and anti-nuclear activist Emiko Okada, 78, sees a red sunset, memories of terror come back to haunt her.

    Okada was a third-grade elementary student at home around 2.8 kilometers from the Hiroshima bomb hypocenter when the blast struck. A flash of bright light interrupted the breakfast she was having with her mother and two younger brothers. When she came to, she was being guided by the hand by her mother, who had been bloodied by glass shards. She saw people begging for water, and people burned to death. Her older sister who had left the house that morning never came back.

    "The red sky then was the same color as a cloudless sunset. When I see the sunset now, I feel unease and pain," she says.

    After the war, Okada worked as a seamstress, but when her son died in a traffic accident, she lost the will to work. At the age of 50, however, she was inspired by a newspaper ad she happened to see. She went to the United States, and together with peace activist Barbara Reynolds went on a tour of more than 40 schools and other locations to speak about her experiences.

    However, when she told her story, most Americans shot back that "the Pearl Harbor attacks came first." Reynolds gave encouragement to Okada, saying that wars and violence are simple to start, but peace was something each person had to create themselves, through discussions with others.

    After returning to Japan, Okada began her activism in earnest. "For my sister who died, for peace, I have to continue my activism," she told herself.

    She spoke at the U.S.-wide exhibition by the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation in 2007. At the time of the G8 Summit at Toyako lake in Hokkaido in 2008, she sent letters to the leaders of the eight nations, asking them to visit Hiroshima. From 1999, she volunteered at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and while she stepped down as a volunteer three years ago, she still goes back to talk about her experiences when asked.

    Although she worries that as more and more A-bomb survivors leave this world, the memory of the bombs will fade, something happened in recent years that gave her heart: the release of the documentary film "Atomic Mom," by director M. T. Silvia, in 2010. It tells the stories of both the director's mother Pauline, who was involved with U.S. navy nuclear tests after World War II, and Okada. According to Okada, young people learning at a Hiroshima project to pass on the experiences of the atomic bomb survivors are organizing a screening of the film.

    "It's now the age of our grandchildren," she says. "I think these kinds of activities offer hope for passing on the memories of the A-bomb survivors to the future."

    (This is Part 3 of a new Hibakusha series)

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