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Late Hiroshima survivor's granddaughter carries on her legacy of international activism

Emiko Okada is seen with her granddaughter, Yuki Tominaga, in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on Aug. 4, 2016. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)
Emiko Okada is seen describing her experiences as a hibakusha, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on July 31, 2020. (Mainichi, Tatsuya Fujii)

HIROSHIMA -- It has been almost 76 years since the U.S. military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the coronavirus crisis has continued to hinder activities by those calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, one tireless hibakusha -- someone whose life was directly affected by the bombing -- who spent more than 30 years telling people in Japan and abroad about her experiences in Hiroshima died suddenly in April.

    The Mainichi Shimbun begins its 2021 summer Hibakusha coverage with a close-up view of the words that this atomic bomb survivor, Emiko Okada, left behind before her death at the age of 84, and her granddaughter's resolve to carry on her story.

    "Please encourage the government to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons," Okada, 84, said as she stood up at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in the city of Hiroshima. It was April 9, and Okada was at a gathering where hibakusha were officially commissioned by the municipal government to share their testimonies.

    "Japan has not ratified the treaty. We must push the government to do so," she said while handing out petition sheets to the around 30 people attending. The very next day, however, Okada suddenly collapsed at a separate meeting. She was dispatched to hospital, but died that day of an aortic dissection.

    Emiko Okada, second from right, is seen speaking in America about her experience of the atomic bombing, in this image provided by Hiromu Morishita, honorary director of the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima.

    "She was angry. It was like she was giving a speech at the United Nations," said 83-year-old Keiko Ogura, one of the other testimonial activists who received copies of Okada's petition on April 9. "We have to do these kinds of active initiatives," Ogura says she told Okada while receiving two of the papers. Although Ogura collected signatures for the campaign, she feels a pang of sorrow: "I couldn't hand them back to Okada."

    Emiko Okada was 8 years old when the atomic bomb fell 2.8 kilometers away from her home. She lost her sister, a mobilized student four years her senior. At the age of 50, she went with the help of a nonprofit organization to schools and other venues in the U.S., where she talked about her experiences of the atomic bombing. The trip spurred her to get involved in peace activism, and she went on to tell her story at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and elsewhere. She said she did it because she "didn't want the children of the world to have to experience the same things."

    In 2009 she visited the United Nations in New York, and there she described the reality of the atomic bombing. She continued to tell her message to the world, including in 2015 when she became the first atomic bomb survivor, or hibakusha, to be invited to the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Sweden in December that year.

    Tomoko Watanabe, director of the nonprofit organization ANT-Hiroshima which compiled a picture book on Okada's life, said: "The way that she campaigned for the abolition of nuclear weapons until the very end is inspiring to those who come after her."

    Emiko Okada is seen talking about her experiences as a hibakusha on July 31, 2020, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Naka Ward, Hiroshima. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

    Three days before her death, she spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun with a sense of urgency and passion. "The number of hibakusha is gradually falling. But we must continue to pass our stories on." She expressed her hope for the future, too, adding, "It's fine whatever form it takes. I want young people to look to the future and pass on the stories of the experiences of hibakusha."

    Then she said something that sounded almost as if she was assuring herself. They would become her parting words to me: "Nuclear weapons have not disappeared from the world. We must do more and more to make our case for abolition to the world."

    Okada's granddaughter, 24-year-old dancer Yuki Tominaga, has taken on her wishes. She says she hopes "to become a bridge for my grandmother's feelings that can continue to tell people her message."

    Okada's funeral was attended only by family, and Tominaga performed an improvisational dance in front of an image of her departed grandmother. Around her neck, she wore a pendant Okada always had on when sharing her story. "My grandmother was watching me," she said. Her family was moved by the performance, too.

    Emiko Okada is seen in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on Jan. 28, 2016. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    Aged 11, Tominaga heard her grandmother talk about her atomic bombing experiences for the first time. It was the spring of 2009. She said she began to feel she wanted to find out more about what her grandmother had gone through. In May that year, she went with her to New York, to participate in a meeting at the U.N. Headquarters, where Okada spoke. "The children born in Hiroshima have a duty to pass on the horrors of the atomic bombing," Tominaga said.

    In 2016, Tominaga became a dance instructor. She thought she could get the elementary, junior high and high school students who attended her classes to hear about her grandmother's experiences, so she invited her to the classroom. Some of the children wept as they listened to her speak. Tominaga felt a new appreciation for the power of her grandmother's words, and found herself wondering whether she might be able to do the same thing.

    But she also thought there was no way she could compete with her grandmother's words. Several years ago, she said to herself, "I can't talk the way my grandma does." Upon hearing her, her grandmother smiled kindly and said, "The things you are good at are enough."

    Tominaga's dance at the funeral was not just a way to mourn her grandmother, but also an expression of her resolution. She wanted to tell her grandmother to take heart, because from now on they would do the activism for her.

    Yuki Tominaga is seen talking about her departed grandmother, Emiko Okada, in this image taken in Higashi Ward, Hiroshima, on May 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)

    The past year saw Okada's opportunities to speak about the bombing severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. But she resolved to keep speaking, even if just at home, and began gathering the necessary equipment for remote talks about her experiences. She was scheduled to speak to students at a university in Chicago on May 28, but Tominaga gave the talk in her place. She wanted to be a connection to her grandmother's feelings. She left the students with a message of peace, and of the memories of Okada.

    Tominaga has taken up Okada's wishes in her own way. "Through her testimony, my grandmother sowed the seeds of peace across the world. I want to do what I can to make them blossom," she said.

    What was in her mind were her grandmother's words in January this year, when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect: "It's not complete unless nuclear weapons are eliminated. It's only the starting line."

    (Japanese original by Kazuki Ikeda and Isamu Gari, Hiroshima Bureau)

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