HIROSHIMA, Japan — The crowd sat entranced as 78-year-old Emiko Okada recalled the horrifying events of Aug. 6, 1945, a day that started hot and cloudless. There was the buzz of the plane, the huge flash, the cries for water, the kids like ghosts with skin dangling off them, the people with their guts hanging out.
“We don’t want you young generations to go through what I did. You can help by spreading what you just heard from me to other people,” Okada — a hibakusha, or “atomic bombed person” — said this week in Hiroshima, not far from the spot where American forces dropped Little Boy, the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare, 70 years ago Thursday.
Not only is Okada telling her own story, but she has also begun to train an apprentice to continue disseminating her tale after she’s gone: a memory keeper, one of a growing number here being designated as an “A-bomb legacy successor” as the number of survivors dwindle.
While there are still more than 183,000 survivors of Hiroshima or Nagasaki alive in Japan today, their average age is 80, according to official statistics.
Okada’s designated storyteller is a 39-year-old man who works in a Tokyo department store and has no direct ties to Hiroshima. But since visiting the peace museum here as a college student, the memory keeper, Yasukazu Narahara, has become almost as ardent as Okada when it comes to making sure their fellow Japanese do not forget how the bombing came about and the devastation that nuclear weapons cause.
Japanese children do not spend much time learning about World War II at school, with the official curriculum guidelines saying students should understand that the war “caused sufferings to all humanity at large.” A recent poll by the public broadcaster NHK found that only 30 percent of adults could correctly give the date of the Hiroshima attack and even fewer knew when the Nagasaki attack happened.
“I hope I can build a relationship with her like a son” so that Okada will bequeath him her innermost thoughts, Narahara said after organizing the session at which Okada spoke.
That’s a real fear. The memories of the bombs are fading fast in Japan.
Japan will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima on Thursday, and three days later the attack on Nagasaki. No one knows exactly how many people died as a result, but the Manhattan Engineer District says there were at least 105,000 deaths. Other estimates exceed 200,000.
Imperial Japan surrendered less than a week later, although there were people on both sides — including U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — who believed that Japan was looking for a way to admit defeat even before the bombings.
For a long time afterward, survivors tried to hide their stories, afraid of being taunted in gym class over their burns or having marriage proposals revoked over radiation fears.
But in a move that many survivors oppose, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative prime minister, is taking tangible steps toward removing some of the shackles imposed on Japan by its American occupiers 70 years ago.
He wants to reinterpret the pacifist constitution to enable Japan’s “self defense forces” to take a more active military role, including by coming to the United States’ defense. Washington is supportive of the change.
But the proposal has sparked virulent protests at home, with many Japanese saying their war-renouncing constitution has served them well over the last seven decades. Japan’s neighbors have accused Abe of trying to whitewash history.
Okada is strongly dismissive of Abe’s plans — she wishes he wouldn’t come to the memorial here Thursday — and is worried that lessons are not being learned.
“Of course, I hope that students will be taught about this at school. I want young people to learn why the atomic bombs were dropped,” she said in an interview after her talk. “We also need to talk about what happened on the other side. We need to talk about what Japan did to other countries, too, so we understand all the events of this period of history.”
Another survivor who’s telling his story has the same fears.
“I’m part of the last generation who can tell the story of these events in living form,” said Okihiro Terao, who was 4 on the day of the bombing and now stands in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, not far from the hypocenter of the blast, telling visitors about his experience.
Like Okada, Terao talks in terms of nuclear disarmament and does not directly criticize American actions that day — at least, not openly. Both strongly oppose Abe’s plans to move Japan back to a more normal military footing.
“It makes me want to cry,” Terao said. “Something terrible like this could happen again. It’s no joke. We’ve been a peaceful country for this long, why do we need to go backwards in history to how it used to be 70 years ago?”
Terao weathered the August heat outside the dome this week, while the surprisingly energetic Okada tells her story to school groups and other visitors to Hiroshima during the peak summer season. But Narahara has taken on the responsibility of telling Okada’s story at other times and speaking at events further afield, particularly in Tokyo.
Narahara, who was already volunteering at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, traveling back and forth from Tokyo on his own dime, went through the training program being run by Hiroshima’s city government to produce the next generation of atomic bomb storytellers. Currently, 210 people with an average age of 55 are learning testimonies to recount at the museum and nearby memorial.
“The biggest challenge is how to tell a story about someone’s experience in someone else’s words,” said Ayami Shibata, the city official in charge of the three-year-long program. “Many find it difficult to decide whether to speak first-person and which parts of their mentor’s life to focus and to inherit.”
Okada said it’s important to her that she disseminates her story in her real voice.
“Can successors pass on the words that come out of our souls, something so painful, our experiences and thoughts and feelings?” she said. “Narahara is passionate about spreading the message. That’s something that I’d like to applaud, that’s something that I want him to carry on doing.”
It can be hard for the denshosha, or memory keepers, to relate to, and to relate, such a searing personal experience, Narahara said.
“Mrs. Okada focuses a lot on children because she doesn’t want to repeat the experience of her sister,” who died in the attack, he said. “She saw so many children and babies killed in the aftermath of the bombing and she never wants that repeated. And I strongly feel that way, too.”
One child certainly learned the intended lesson this week. Chizuko Hyodo, who lives near Tokyo, brought her 9-year-old, Haruka, to the session. “I thought it would be a valuable experience for her,” Hyodo said. “I wanted for her to learn about it.”
After listening to Okada’s story, Haruka simply said: “It was really scary.”