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Tomoe Okai, Founder

From Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States. The Untold Story. By Gloria R. Montebruno Saller, Ph.D. (forthcoming, December 2022). Copyrights by Gloria R. Montebruno Saller, 2022.

[GM] Tomoe Okai (1920 – 1978).

Tomoe Okai 巴岡井 (1920 – 1978) was born in Hiroshima. Her maiden’s name was Uenoya. She married Sasaki Takenori in 1942, and during WWII, she lived with him in Ōsaka where he was working at the Ōsaka branch of the company Hitachi. They had two children: a boy and a girl, but both children became sick during the war, and because of lack of medicines, they passed away.  In June 1945, while pregnant with her daughter Taeko, she returned to Hiroshima with her husband. Ōsaka had been heavily bombed by then, and safety concerns motivated their move to Hiroshima. They were 1.3 km from the hypocenter when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on August 6. Tomoe was 25 years old. After the nuclear detonation, her husband went to look for his father-in-law and his sister-in-law in the city and was exposed to radiation. Shortly after experiencing the a-bomb, Tomoe and her husband moved to Ōsakikamijima Island. Ōsakikamijima, one of the many islands in the Seto Inland Sea, was the birthplace of her husband; on this island, her in-laws had a tangerine farm. Her daughter Taeko was born on this island on October 25, 1945 (and is considered an “in-utero a-bomb survivor”). Tomoe’s husband succumbed to stomach cancer in June 1946. In 1954, Tomoe started experiencing symptoms of atomic bomb disease. When the Atomic Bomb Survivors Medical Care Law was enacted in Japan in 1957, she and her daughter Taeko became eligible for the atomic bomb health certificate or techō which they both obtained in 1959.  This law allowed atomic bomb survivors in Japan to have two free health checkups per fiscal year. In 1961, under pressure from her family, she married George Okai, a U.S. citizen of Japanese ancestry (who was originally from Texas, newly divorced, and spoke little Japanese) who while visiting his parents who had returned to Japan to retire was also looking for a new wife. In January 1962, Tomoe and her new husband moved to Los Angeles. Her daughter Taeko moved to the U.S. in November 1962 after she received her residence permit (green card). When she moved to the U.S., Tomoe did see doctors about her health issues, but no one was able to give a diagnose or would dismiss her symptoms as psychosomatic in nature. Overtime, she started feeling strongly about atomic bomb survivors residing outside Japan that did not have access to government sponsored medical care for their a-bomb related medical afflictions. As she travelled back to Japan (to her hometown of Hiroshima) to access her medical benefits as an atomic bomb survivor, she started discussions with local government officials about the possibility of extending medical benefits to survivors residing outside Japan. Japanese nationals residing in the USA (green card holders) had to travel back to Japan to take advantage of the annual medical examination under the umbrella of the 1957 Atomic Bomb Relief Law. These benefits did not extend to US-born a-bomb survivors at the time. Moreover, many Japanese a-bomb survivors residing abroad could not afford traveling to Japan on a regular basis and would often hide to family members, friends, and their employers they were atomic bomb survivors (as there was a negative connotation attached to it, and because they could lose their health insurance benefits as “a-bomb disease” was considered a pre-existing condition). In August 1965, Tomoe answered the announcement posted in the Rafu Shimpō by Kaname Shimoda and Satoru Arai. Shimoda and Arai were looking for a-bomb survivors in the Los Angeles area to start a friendship/affinity group. In the end, Shimoda asked Tomoe Okai to handle the official business of the group as his own health was failing. It was thanks to her personal and political connections in Hiroshima that Tomoe was able to start a dialogue among a-bomb survivors in Japan and a-bomb survivors in the United States (and specifically in Southern California) and local government officials on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, which led in October 1971 to the formation of the Coalition of Atomic Bomb Survivors, U.S. (known as CABS or CABSUS) of which she was the first President. In 1967, she visited Hiroshima and met with then Mayor Yamada Setsuo. Itō Chikako summarized this meeting in her book:

"On October 3, 1967, Okai Tomoe, a resident of Los Angeles, visited Hiroshima City Hall. Okai is an A-bomb survivor living in the U.S. (…) Okai told Hiroshima Mayor Yamada Setsuo, "There are 150 A-bomb survivors in Los Angeles who are worried about A-bomb disease. The local doctors dismiss it as a 'case of the A-bomb' and won't examine them in detail, so I would like the city of Hiroshima to dispatch doctors. In addition to their concerns about the lingering effects of radiation from the atomic bombing, A-bomb survivors in the U.S. have been eagerly awaiting the dispatch of specialists from Hiroshima, given the inadequate knowledge about the A-bomb by doctors in the U.S., the high cost of medical care, and the prejudice and discrimination against A-bomb survivors in American society.” Mayor Yamada responded that he would make every effort to realize this, but it took ten years before the dispatch of specialists was realized."  [1] 

In 1971, while in Japan to undergo her health checkup, Tomoe appeared on the NHK program “Studio 102,” where she talked about atomic bomb survivors in the USA. It was the first national television broadcast to feature in the U.S. In 1974, she resigned as president of CABS. On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1978, Tomoe passed away after suffering a massive stroke. She was 58 years old. Okai spearheaded a transnational social movement by bringing together individuals from different walks of life on two continents. Okai’s eyewitness account of the nuclear detonation in Hiroshima and its aftermath are available in “Health Problems of Atomic Bomb Survivors. Hearing: Senate Subcommittee on Medical Education and Health Needs. May 4, 1974.”[2] Okai’s daughter, Taeko Okabe (b. October 1945), shared with me over the years anecdotes and information about her mother’s life, and about her mother’s commitment to the plight of overseas’ .

[1] Itō Chikako, はざまに生きて50年在米被爆者のあゆみ (Hazama ni ikite. 50nen zaibei hibakusha no ayumi), 1996, pp. 3-4.

[2] "Health problems of atomic bomb survivors. Hearing, Senate Sub-committee on Medical Education and Health Needs. Senator Mervyn M. Dymally, Chairman" (May 4, 1974).

Tomoe Okai, Founder: About Us
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