Atomic bombing survivors pass on their stories to new generation of storytellers

She’s told her story for decades. Thousands of people across the globe have heard her speak. But her story is not an easy one to tell.

Seventy years ago, she ran through the streets of Hiroshima, trying desperately not to look at the horrors around her. At only 8 years old, she was surrounded by people with broken limbs and charred bodies, screaming for help under mountains of crumbled houses — wood, metal, nails.

Emiko Okada had no choice but to abandon them to save herself. But she never forgot them.

“Everyone regrets something,” Okada said. “It’s the dark shadow of the bombing on the lives of survivors.”

The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945 and the war ended nine days later. Death counts total around 140,000 people. Some were incinerated by the blast; others died from the after-effects of radiation.

Okada and her family lived behind Hiroshima station. On that sunny day in August, Okada remembers seeing a shiny aircraft in the sky. Seconds later, she heard a loud explosion and saw an intense flash of light.

When she looked up after the bombing, her mom had glass shards embedded in her head and was bleeding. Okada’s own sister was killed in the blast.

Fires overtook Hiroshima for hours as her family ran through the streets to the mountains. Even today, at 78, she hates to see a red sunset. It reminds her of that night.

She doesn’t want to remember, but she forces herself to. She knows the importance of her story.

But the memory is fading. Survivors of the world’s first atomic bombing are aging — those alive are at least 70, those that remember the day are even older.

With this inevitable trend, the city of Hiroshima is preserving those stories with a new sense of urgency. Survivor testimony is central to the mission of Hiroshima to spread peace and ban nuclear weapons.

Okada herself is working to pass on the memory of that day when her life changed forever. Three years ago, she signed up for a successor who could carry on not only her story, but her spirit as well.

Michiko Takaya, 62, grew up in Hiroshima with reminders of the bomb everywhere. More than 120,000 square meters in the center of her city are donated to memorializing the attack. The skeleton of the blown-out A-bomb dome reigns over the Peace Memorial Park.

The A-bomb dome sits among the modern buildings of Hiroshima.

But Takaya was taught very little about the bombing itself.

Her mother, a survivor, shared few details about her experience that day in August. Takaya’s mother only said she was leaving the house the day when the bomb was dropped. She saw a white flash and a few seconds later, the sky went black with smoke.

Takaya’s mother had a single phrase to describe that day:

It was hell.

Her mother was pregnant with Takaya’s older brother at the time of the bombing and gave birth to Takaya eight years later.

“I hesitated to ask about the A-bomb,” Takaya said. “I did not have any clear idea for a long time.”

Takaya got on with her life. She eventually got a job at a non-profit organization called Japan International Cooperation Center, which works with developing countries. While working there, she was transferred from Hiroshima to three different Japanese cities.

Three years ago, she retired after 23 years working outside of Hiroshima and returned to a much different city. Many A-bomb survivors had died since she had left, including her mother.

When she was back in Hiroshima, she found notes that her father wrote about the bomb, describing his thoughts and feelings about that day. After reading them, Takaya understood the urgency there was to memorialize and save the survivor stories that were quickly disappearing.

She saw advertisements on TV and in newspapers for a new program that allowed younger generations to learn the stories of hibakusha — survivors of the atomic bombs — and retell them. When the survivors died, these apprentices could take over the stories.

Takaya signed up.

“I wanted to do something for peace,” she said. “I wanted to do something for Hiroshima.”

She began her journey learning the story of a single survivor, one that she would eventually take over and share with even more thousands of people.

The story she is learning has been told for years — Okada’s.

The process of becoming a successor is long and complex.

Takaya was one of 137 applicants, aging from 19–75 years old, said Mitsuru Nishida, chief of the International Peace Promotion Department in Hiroshima.

The storytelling program is a three-year training process for successors. The first year, they study information about the bombing, war and other survivor experiences.

Twenty-three survivors signed up to pass on their stories during the first year, each delivering their testimony to the applicants.

The applicants select the survivors they want to succeed and write a proposal statement. They can choose up to eight, but some just do one, Nishida said.

After the second year, the successors for each survivor meet in groups twice per month for joint training. They prepare their testimonies, drafting a speech and clearing it with department heads and the survivor themselves. Once they agree on the correct text, storytellers can move on to the final step of training.

During the third and final year, the successors deliver their testimony before the group three separate times.

Because of the intense and long training process, many drop out. In April, 51 successors — less than half the original number — graduated from the program and are delivering impromptu testimonies around the peace museum.

After their survivor dies or can no longer deliver their testimony, successors will take over their story to continue the tradition of telling the story of the atomic bombing directly.

Okada (bottom center) sits with the women learning to retell her story. Takaya (bottom left) sits beside Okada and among her fellow storytellers.
“Hearing the story directly from the hibakusha’s mouth touches your heart and resonates strongly,” Nishida said. “But we can’t do that forever.”

After the first generation of successors, the Peace Promotion Department will not continue to train new successors. Nishida said he fears that the message will be skewed or lost if they pass it down another level.

“It won’t be the same experience, but if you let the number of hibakusha get to zero, that’s not a good result either,” he said.

When the number of survivors dwindles to zero, the Peace Memorial Park would lose a major part of its mission. Each year, Nishida said 300,000 elementary and middle school students visit the park in Hiroshima. Of those, 250,000 of them listen to survivor testimony.

Survivor stories are a large part of Hiroshima’s mission to bring peace. The testimonies provide the base for nearly every group who works with the atomic bombing to incite change.

One group, Mayors for Peace, collaborates with different city leadership to abolish nuclear weapons. They currently have more than 6,500 members in 160 different countries.

Their main goal is to abolish all nuclear weapons by 2020. The goal is a little unrealistic, Yasuyoshi Komizo, director of the Peace Memorial Park, said. But, the goal is to show the survivors that the international community is listening to their stories and working to make change for them.

Komizo said the stories are a good motivation for people to think about the cause. Considering them is not a sentimental thing and the survivors themselves are working toward the cause to ban nuclear weapons.

Okada’s own dedication to the abolition is something that drew Takaya to choose her as her survivor three years ago.

“I met several hibakusha survivors,” Takaya said. “She’s quite different from other survivors. She’s positive thinking. She really explained what happened that day.”

Part of the positivity Takaya sees is that Okada has committed to not only sharing her story, but to fighting for peace.

When Okada speaks, Takaya listens.

The two talk together, but the conversation circles around Okada. She directs the discussion and isn’t afraid to share her thoughts.

Takaya’s main goal is to absorb those thoughts and opinions. Eventually, she’ll have to pass them on to the next generation of listeners.

But the project moves beyond just passing on the story itself. Takaya said she wants to be the successor of Okada’s spirit.

“I don’t want to be the copy of the story,” Takaya said.

Okada agrees, wanting her successors not just to read, but also to explain and emphasize peace, the bombing and the need to ban nuclear weapons.

“It’s not like reading a statement,” Nishida said. “It’s taking it into your heart and putting it into your own words. That’s what this work is.”

Part of Okada’s spirit, and the reason Takaya chose to succeed her, is her work for the nuclear disarmament movement. Okada has spoken all over the world about nuclear weapons and their impact.

Okada testifies about her experiences in the Hiroshima bombing.

She remembers her first time speaking in the U.S. 29 years ago. She was brought by the World Friendship Center to give her testimony in schools, churches and universities. At the time, she only spoke about her specific experiences in the bombing. Since then, she has learned more about the bomb and the threat of nuclear weapons.

“Atomic bombs can destroy many people’s dreams and hopes,” Okada said. “It killed young children. We can never allow that to happen again.”

Okada works everyday to make sure it doesn’t. Whether she is sharing her testimony or advocating for nuclear disarmament she keeps hope that one day things will change.

“Fostering these successors, that is hope,” Okada said. “I don’t want to sit around and just talk about it.”

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