Nagasaki students pass on A-bomb victim’s story, wish to abolish nuclear weapons

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Misato Kaji, right, and Hanae Hirayama show pages from their pamphlet featuring Nobuko Oka in Nagasaki City on Jan. 11.

NAGASAKI — For decades after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Nobuko Oka kept silent, traumatized by the horrors of that day. She finally decided to speak up in her 80s in a mission to educate future generations and propel a movement for a world without nuclear weapons.

A group of students at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University in Nagasaki City is looking to continue the legacy left by Oka, who died in November at the age of 93, by featuring her in the upcoming edition of a pamphlet dedicated to world peace.

The pamphlet is scheduled to be published in February, and includes extensive interviews with Oka, who made a stirring speech last August as a representative of A-bomb survivors at an annual ceremony to mark the 76th anniversary of the bombing held in Nagasaki.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Nobuko Oka speaks at a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing in August last year.

The idea for a special feature arose in April last year, when a professor at the university set up a meeting between Oka and Hanae Hirayama and Misato Kaji, two of the five members of a student group called Green Pieces. Oka sat down for four interviews with the two.

Fewer and fewer remain to tell their tragic stories. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the average age of atomic bomb survivors as of the end of March 2021 was 83.94 and about 9,000 survivors died in fiscal 2020. As the time approaches when none are left, how to pass on their experiences has become an issue.

Oka’s story began when she was 16 years old and a nursing school student on the day the bomb was dropped. Her home was just 1.8 kilometers from the epicenter. In addition to radiation, she was struck with shards of glass in her left side. Even so, she answered the call to help treat victims at a local first-aid station.

The horrible scenes to follow were etched deep in her memory. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Oka saw a man holding in his exposed internal organs, and a mother trying to suckle a dead baby. It became excruciating for her to recall such terrible memories, and until her mid-80s, she never said a word to anyone about what happened.

It would only be after a niece asked about Oka’s father, who died in the bombing, that Oka changed her mind and started talking about “that day.” She regarded it as a “mission of the survivors” to share their experiences with others.

In her speech last August, she described the enactment of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons the previous January as the “earnest wishes of atomic bomb survivors.”

“As long as I live, I will keep talking about it,” said Oka, who was diagnosed with cancer soon after the ceremony. She passed away on Nov. 4.

In the students’ fourth interview with Oka on Oct. 2, they asked Oka why she finally decided to start talking.

“I couldn’t bring myself to even utter the word ‘atomic bomb,’” Oka replied. “Just thinking about it was painful. But as I sensed that [memories] were fading, I thought, if not now, when?”

Asked what thoughts she put into her speech, Oka replied in a strained voice, “The embodiment of peace as I see it is the elimination of nuclear weapons. This is not limited to just Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but everyone must make efforts to do away with nuclear weapons.”

For the two students, it would be the last time to meet Oka. The next day, Oka had difficulty getting out of bed.

The 10-plus-page pamphlet is published once a year and focuses on peace movements, such as activities to pass on atomic bombing stories. In this year’s edition, four pages are devoted to the feature on Oka.

In addition to sharing Oka’s experiences, it incorporates her message to the younger generation that “at any time, peace can be maintained if you have sympathy for others.”

Oka also told the students, “I want to help protect your youth,” as a reason for opening up about the devastation caused by nuclear weapons.

The group plans to distribute the pamphlet both on campus and off, and expects it to be used as preparatory study materials for students who visit Nagasaki on school trips.

“I want young people in particular to know that while many people died quickly of radiation without having time to suffer, there are others still suffering today,” Hirayama said.

Kaji added, “Through meeting Oka, it hit me deeply that we will soon be unable to hear directly from atomic bomb survivors. I feel it is important to continue to speak out for the elimination of nuclear weapons.”