Ayumi Miyaura remembers her sadness in seeing young children at a daycare center inside an Ecuador prison where their mothers were incarcerated. Some of them, she learned, would go on to follow a similar path as adults.
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.
[Photo courtesy of Ayumi Miyaura]
She admits to struggling to explain how exactly her mission to stage a fireworks show in Ecuador would make a lasting impression on the local 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 she hopes to strike an emotional 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 -- an idea that 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 this summer for a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Japan-Ecuador diplomatic ties.
With the support of the Ecuador Embassy in Tokyo and the organizing committee, the initial project evolved into a tie-up with the Fukushima Prefecture town of Inawashiro because of its historical links with Ecuador.
It is the hometown of Japanese scientist Hideyo Noguchi who went to Ecuador in 1918 to help control yellow fever.
The bacteriologist, who appears on Japan's 1,000 yen note, remains a well-known figure there, with a street and a school in the suburbs of Ecuador's capital Quito named after him, according to organizers, Ecuador residents and Inawashiro town.
At this year's Inawashiro fireworks festival held on Aug. 13, a portion 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.
Prior to the event, organizers during their visit to Ecuador asked local kids to write down their wishes on pieces of paper. In Inawashiro, the children were also asked to do the same.
Although miles apart, children from the two countries took part in the project and had their wishes wrapped around firework shell casings and launched from a tube, Miyaura said.
A group of Ecuadorians touring Japan also witnessed the spectacle. Marcelo Cuenca was amazed, saying in Ecuador, there are also fireworks but not on the scale or level of Japanese hanabi.
"Hanabi can connect people. I am happy to have been able to create that moment for people from Japan and Ecuador," Miyaura said, referring to the Japanese word for fireworks, the Chinese characters for flower and fire.
Toru Kodaki, who heads the centenary anniversary committee, was Japan's former ambassador to Ecuador at the time commemorative events were being organized and when the hanabi project was proposed to him.
When he first heard about it, he initially thought fireworks would turn out to simply be a one-off event, where the fireworks are launched and that would be the end of it.
Now, having seen Miyaura's dedication and all the work put in and the involvement of people from both countries, he believes the project has made its mark in bringing the countries closer.
Among the Japanese spectators was Yuya Hattori who came all the way from Mie Prefecture with her Ecuadorian husband. Hattori was part of a bus tour group of Japanese and Ecuadorian nationals who traveled to Inawashiro for the hanabi project. Miyaura was also part of the group.
"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 people in Japan 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 childcare center inside a prison in Quito. There 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 Japanese pyrotechnic show producer, after graduating from university. Even after she left the firm in 2012, she continued to pursue her goal as she flew to Ecuador and coordinated with local pyrotechnicians.
Crowdfunding for the Ecuador fireworks project began in 2015. In cooperation with a pyrotechnician from her former employer, Miyaura also held classes on the history of Japanese fireworks and workshops where participants can create dummy firework shells.
While her initial plan has taken a detour, Miyaura believes the Inawashiro fireworks show with an Ecuador-themed part is the start of something bigger -- for herself and the two 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 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 fireworks was shown during the Aug. 25-26 Japan festival in Quito, 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, 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.