INAWASHIRO, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Ayumi Miyaura remembers her sadness in seeing young children at a day care center in an Ecuador prison where their mothers were incarcerated. Some of them, she learned, would go on to follow a similar criminal path.
When Miyaura, a former pyrotechnician, thought of how she could give them a taste of a better future, what came to mind was hanabi — the Japanese word for fireworks. Uplifted by fireworks herself, she wanted to share that experience with children — as well as the broader public — in the Latin American country.
She admits to struggling to explain how exactly her mission to stage a fireworks show in Ecuador would make a lasting impression on children who grew up with their mothers in prison.
“We all know fireworks are beautiful, but there is the question of what fireworks per se can actually do to change a child’s life,” Miyaura said. She added that she hopes to strike a chord and stir something within the children, and by doing so inspire them not to settle for the status quo, or a life of crime.
But her dream — which took shape in 2004 — has yet to come to fruition because of the logistical problems of transporting fireworks out of Japan.
Undaunted, the 34-year-old switched gears, hatching a plan to produce fireworks in Japan this summer for a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Japan-Ecuador ties.
With the support of the Embassy of Ecuador in Tokyo and the organizing committee, the initial project evolved into a tie-up with the town of Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture, which has historical links with the country. Inawashiro is the hometown of Japanese bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, who went to Ecuador in 1918 to help control yellow fever.
Noguchi, who appears on the ¥1,000 note, remains a well-known figure there, with a street and school in the suburbs of the capital Quito named after him, according to organizers, residents and Inawashiro officials.
At this year’s Inawashiro fireworks festival on Aug. 13, a portion of the event was dedicated to Ecuador. Fireworks in the images of a banana and a traditional hat, among others, were cast in the sky as traditional Ecuadorian music played in the background.
Before the event, organizers visiting Ecuador asked local kids to write down their wishes on pieces of paper. In Inawashiro, the children there were asked to do the same.
Despite being over 14,000 km apart, the Ecuadorian and Japanese children both got their wishes wrapped around the fireworks shells and launched into the sky above Fukushima, Miyaura said.
A group of Ecuadorians touring Japan also witnessed the spectacle.
One of them, Marcelo Cuenca, noted that Ecuador also has fireworks but not on the level of Japan’s.
“Hanabi can connect people. I am happy to have been able to create that moment for people from Japan and Ecuador,” Miyaura said.
Toru Kodaki, who heads the centenary anniversary committee, was Japan’s former ambassador to Ecuador when the hanabi project was proposed and organized.
When he first heard about it, he initially thought the fireworks would turn out to be a one-off event. But after seeing Miyaura’s dedication, all the work put in and the involvement of people on both sides, he believes the project has made its mark in bringing the countries closer together.
Among the Japanese spectators in Ecuador was Yuya Hattori, who came all the way from Mie Prefecture with her Ecuadorian husband for the event. Hattori was part of a tour group comprising people from both countries, including Miyaura, who traveled to Inawashiro for the show.
“I was touched by what Ms. Miyaura has said about how, when everyone watches fireworks, we are all equal and together, and we can see and appreciate beauty,” Hattori said.
Miyaura believes the sight of fireworks — often characterized by Japanese as “flowers in the sky” — resonates with people from all walks of life as a way of celebration.
“Even if you feel stuck in a situation, seeing fireworks can empower you to carry on and look ahead to tomorrow,” she said, recalling the life-changing trip to Ecuador that motivated her to embark on the hanabi project.
Miyaura was in university when she left Japan in 2004 to live abroad for six months and experience a different culture. She had nowhere in mind, and Ecuador seemed as good a choice as any.
Under a program run by a Japanese nongovernmental organization, she volunteered to work at a child care center in a prison in Quito where she took care of children and babies, changing their diapers, feeding them and playing with them.
“I learned how some children who grow up with their mothers in prison commit crimes and return to a life behind the bars,” she said. “I wanted to break this cycle. I wanted them to know there is a different world out there, that the inspiration from watching hanabi would hereafter make them want to lead a better life.”
Holding on to her dream, she entered Marutamaya Co., a major producer of Japanese pyrotechnic shows, after graduating from university. Even after she left in 2012, she continued to pursue her goal, flying to Ecuador to coordinate with the local pyrotechnicians.
Crowdfunding for the fireworks project began in 2015. In cooperation with a pyrotechnician from her former employer, Miyaura also held classes on the history of Japanese fireworks as well as workshops that allowed participants to create dummy fireworks shells.
While her initial plan has taken a detour, Miyaura believes the Inawashiro fireworks show was the start of something bigger — both for herself and the countries involved.
Ecuador Ambassador to Japan Jaime Barberis, who attended the show in Inawashiro, said he is hopeful about the role of fireworks in deepening bilateral ties.
“I understand that fireworks can convey messages of friendship, and I hope this display can be held in Ecuador,” Barberis said.
In Japan, fireworks date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), when people believed they helped ward off evil spirits. Hanabi festivals have since then played a role in celebrations, as well as in lifting people’s spirits in the wake of disasters and tragedies.
Footage of the Inawashiro show was shown during the Japan festival in Quito from Aug. 25 to 26 as part of the Japan-Ecuador centenary events.
There, she renewed her commitment to stage fireworks displays in Ecuador someday.
“It was not only about showing them to children. Adults, too, enjoyed and appreciated them, and told me they would want to see that in Ecuador,” Miyaura recounted.
And when that day arrives, she hopes that people from Inawashiro can join in the festivities.