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Hibakusha: 82-yr-old continues to speak for Hiroshima's unheard voices at home and abroad

Emiko Okada talks about her activism in the U.S. at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on May 15, 2019. (Tatsuya Onishi, Osaka Photo Group)

HIROSHIMA -- It is May 15, and 82-year-old Emiko Okada is at the newly reopened Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum's main building. In front of her are faintly lit photographs of children who died after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945, and the words "I'm hot, I'm hot."

For Okada, the exhibition has moved closer to conveying the true horror of the bomb. But though she wants people from the world over to see it, she still feels something is missing. "There were faint voices. If that could be conveyed somehow...," she said.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Okada was 8 years old; her home just 2.8 kilometers from the blast's hypocenter. As she ran to escape, she heard countless voices. There were children crying for their parents, for someone to help them, and pleading for water. Even now she can hear the sound. She wonders if there is some way to impart to people today the clamor of voices she heard under the mushroom cloud.

An activist and resident of Hiroshima's Higashi Ward, Okada travelled to the U.S. in October 2007 as part of an initiative for survivors of the atomic bombings to give talks across America. She also became the first atomic bomb survivor, or hibakusha, to be invited to the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December 2015.

But over the 30 years she has been engaged in testimonial activism, international diplomacy's moves toward abolition of nuclear weapons have advanced only glacially. At the 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at U.N. Headquarters in May, the gulf between nuclear and non-nuclear states was plain to see. The meeting ended without a consensus among countries on draft recommendations for next year's review conference.

After a January 2019 talk at a university in the state of Pennsylvania, U.S, she felt that the world still didn't understand what the atomic bomb meant. One attendee said it was the first time they had heard the U.S. military were responsible for dropping the atomic bomb. Another, a student, said he was grateful to the U.S., and that he would fight if there was a war.

It seems the war is being forgotten with the passage of time. Through talking to the students Okada realized that though she doesn't want to reject a range of opinions, it was a reminder of the danger that comes with a generation that can't imagine the horror of war.

But there were also encouraging moments, with many attempting to understand the effects of war and the atomic bomb. After hearing Okada speak, almost the entire audience signed the Hibakusha Appeal's petition for quick enforcement of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has been adopted at the U.N. There were even some students who said they wanted to take the petition to their local member of Congress.

Upon returning to Japan, Okada has been very busy. She underwent surgery for stomach cancer, which she originally postponed to speak in the U.S. She also met with the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture to discuss further opportunities for hibakusha to speak in prefectural schools. The pages of her diary are crammed with engagements to share the history of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.

Back in the peace memorial museum, she approaches a group of children taking in the exhibits. "Please keep telling people not to make war," she says. Her kind words carry a powerful conviction. The world still needs to understand what the atomic bomb means.

(Japanese original by Shun Teraoka, Hiroshima Bureau)

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