Obama Visits Hiroshima
May 27, 2016
Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima on Friday, the first sitting US president to do so.
He arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the evening. The president then walked toward the center of the park. He laid flowers and offered a silent prayer.
After delivering a speech, Obama spoke with A-bomb survivors after the speech.
Seventy-one years ago, the first nuclear weapon used in war exploded above the park.
In 2009, the year President Obama was inaugurated, he spoke about the United States' moral responsibility as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon.
He also stated America's commitment to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.
But the actual movement to eliminate these weapons has shown only modest results. It is in this context that Obama made his first visit to Hiroshima.
How the Visit Unfolded
People gathered from Friday morning to pray at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Obama arrived at the park in the evening. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed him. Obama then entered the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The exhibits document the horror of the bombing.
The president and Abe walked toward the center of the park. At the base of the monument, there is a registry of atomic bomb victims. Obama laid flowers and offered a silent prayer.
Seventy-one years ago, on a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city, and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself. Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder the terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children. Thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held in prison," Obama said.
"But among those nations like my own who hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe," he said.
Abe said he had "the greatest respect" for Obama's decision to visit the city.
"I'm very happy to be able to welcome Obama visiting Hiroshima for the first time as sitting US president," Abe said. "He has seen what the nuclear bomb can do to us and he reconfirmed his determination continuously toward a world without nuclear weapons and people in Hiroshima. And not only people in Hiroshima but all people in Japan have been wishing to have this visit. And I would like to welcome Mr. President again with all people in the country. I believe Obama's decision is the one that opens a new page in our history. I express my greatest respect to his difficult decision."
Obama then approached atomic bomb survivors who had been invited to the ceremony. They spoke with the president. Obama embraced one of them.
NHK World anchor Sho Beppu was joined by 3 guests in Hiroshima.
Koko Kondo survived the bomb when she was 8 months old and her father, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, was a minister who dedicated his life to helping atomic bomb survivors. Tanimoto appears in the bestselling book about Hiroshima survivors written by American journalist John Hersey.
Professor Peter Kuznick of American University is an historian with deep knowledge about the decision to use the bombs, and the true level of damage they caused.
Hideaki Shinoda, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, is an expert on the history of Hiroshima's reconstruction as a symbolic city of peace after it was destroyed by the atomic blast.
Beppu: Let me start with you, Ms. Kondo. You're an atomic-bomb survivor. You are a survivor. You were impacted by the A-bomb when you were an 8-months-old baby. Your father is a well-known person in the United States. Well, he in fact appeared in a book that was written by John Hersey, and you also were. President Obama mentioned about you in his speech. He talked about a person who was able to forgive even the pilot who dropped this bomb. Can you tell us about this episode?
Kondo: Since my father's church was at the center of Hiroshima city, so after the disaster, the young girls came to the church. And whoever came to the church, I could not see their faces because their whole body was disfigured. But gradually I learned there was one bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima city. That's the cause of the disfigurement. So it's because they're so nice to me, they call me Koko-chan, so nice. So I thought "someday I'll be grown up. I'm going to find the person who owns the B-29 Enola Gay," and as a child I thought "I'm going to give them a punch, or a bite, or a kick for revenge."
Beppu: And you actually met this pilot when you travelled to the United States, and you participated in a TV program the pilot was just in front of you. How old were you then?
Kondo: I was 10 years old.
Beppu: And what happened?
Kondo: He said after they dropped the bomb, they have to leave. But they came back and from the air he saw Hiroshima. Hiroshima had disappeared. Then he said, "I wrote it in my log. 'My god, what have we done?'" Then, I was just staring at his eye because I thought he was a bad one. The tears came out from his eye. That's the time I learned that I shouldn't hate this guy. If I hate, I hate the war itself, not this man.
Beppu: President Obama used in his speech the word "hibakusha," a Japanese word which means survivors. How did you take that?
Kondo: It was wonderful that he really thinks about us, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Beppu: Moving on, professor Kuznick, well, Peter, in Obama's speech what particularly caught your attention?
Kuznick: I think the fact that he was here, the symbolism, the emotional impact of the president of the United States coming to Hiroshima and speaking to the people of Hiroshima the way he did, was in itself very moving. And the speech he gave was the lofty vision. It was the Obama he wanted to be. It was the legacy he wanted to leave. The reality, unfortunately, is a little bit different. Even the speech itself, he talks about death falling from the sky. He doesn't talk about the United States being responsible, dropping the atomic bombs. You think about the things he didn't mention today. He didn't call for a reduction in America's nuclear arsenal. He didn't call for stopping the modernization program. Obama is sponsoring a $1 trillion modernization of America's nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years. That's to make nuclear weapons more efficient and more usable. Unfortunately that's his real legacy. This is the Obama he wanted to be. The Obama we actually have is sending a very different message to the world.
Beppu: What do you think about what you call the official narrative of the dropping of the bombs, in your country. Do you think it was mentioned?
Kuznick: Yes because he talked about the brutal end coming in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That wasn't the end to the war. It was the Soviet invasion that ended the war.
Beppu: How about you professor Shinoda, how did you hear Obama's speech today?
Shinoda: I find that his speech was so grand and universalistic, and I do not underestimate the fact that the US president is once again committed to nuclear abolition, at least spiritually, very intensively. And at the same time, it was carefully drafted in the sense that he was addressing many different people in many different parts of the world, including Americans in his home country. And he did not forget about or Asian neighbors, and so on. So it was a very, very good speech. However, in the eyes of people in Japan, especially in Hiroshima, he could have mentioned what he felt about the museum, and what he thought about the people on the street trying to greet him, since they could not have access to the park. So perhaps after today's speech, he could mention all of these, going back to the States as well.
Ahead of Obama's visit to Hiroshima, NHK sent multiple choice questionnaires to more than 200 atomic bomb victims.
One question was, "What should Obama do in Hiroshima?"
The item cited most was a tour of the Peace Memorial Museum, accounting for 88 percent of respondents.
On the other hand, only 14 percent asked for an apology.
The results indicate that rather than an apology, most of the survivors hope Obama understands the devastation caused by the atomic bombs to the cities and people there.
Newsroom Tokyo examined how those feelings were shaped over the years.
Atomic Bomb Survivor's Hopes
Sadao Yamamoto, 84, has been waiting a long time for a US president to visit Hiroshima.
"The visit will finally take place. As an atomic bomb survivor, I'm filled with emotion," Yamamoto says.
Yamamoto was 14 years old and in the second year of junior high school when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. He was 2.5 kilometers from the hypocenter.
"It was around this area where I was exposed to radiation," Yamamoto said. "We looked up at the B29 in the sky. At the moment I thought the way it was maneuvering was strange the blast occurred."
The left side of Yamamoto's face was burned. He and his family members survived the blast.
He later found out that all 321 first-year students of his school died. They were at a site just 500 meters from the hypocenter.
"Back then, I just felt hatred towards US soldiers," Yamamoto says. "I realized how terrible the bombing was considering the vast number of fatalities and the many survivors struck with illnesses caused by atomic bombing. The consequences spurred feelings of hatred."
Yamamoto later worked at a power company in Hiroshima. He says the rage and hatred he felt due to the atomic bombings gradually faded as he focused on the concerns of everyday life.
Yamamoto visited the United States last June. He says one of the most memorable events was seeing the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
The aircraft was portrayed as the fruit of scientific and technological development. But there was no explanation about what the bomb did to the people there.
"When I found about how they displayed the plane, I renewed my resolve to keep telling people what happened on the ground no matter what," Yamamoto says.
Yamamoto gives public talks at the Hiroshima peace memorial museum about his experiences.
He says he hopes to devote the rest of his life in working for a nuclear-free world. Yamamoto says that's how he'll ensure the deaths of his fellow students will not go to waste.
"Of course emotions of hatred and anger might not disappear. But it's been 70 years since the bombing. We should never repeat what took place then. What's important now is to reflect on history. What brought us to get into the war then? Why did the atomic bomb come to be used? We should look into history and learn how never to repeat incidents like this," he says.
City of Peace
Hiroshima has transformed into a city rallying for world peace. Every Aug. 6, the city commemorates the victims of the atomic bombing at the Peace Memorial Ceremony.
"We must aim to eliminate nuclear weapons, which are inhumane and evil," Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui said at the event. "We must build and spread the path to true peace across the world."
Former mayor Shinzo Hamai was a leading figure who worked hard to rebuild Hiroshima. He himself survived the atomic bomb.
In 1947, Hiroshima held the first peace festival. Hamai recalled the atmosphere at that time in his memoir.
"Our hearts were empty but within a few years, a spirit gave birth within us, to prevent this brutal act from happening again. Our voices united and we survivors felt the responsibility to seek and realize true peace. We hope our voices from Hiroshima reach people around the world," Hamai wrote.
With Mayor Hamai's strong leadership Hiroshima was able to rebuild as a City of Peace. This is a scene from a TV program broadcast in 1964.
Mayor Hamai made sure the tragic history of the atomic bombings would never be forgotten. He traveled to Tokyo to join a fundraising campaign to preserve a building as a reminder of the bomb.
The Hiroshima that emerged from Hamai’s vision: at the heart of the city is the Peace Memorial Park.
The Hiroshima Dome warns of the dangers of nuclear weapons. In the center of the park is a cenotaph.
The text says: "Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil."
Hamai selected the words -- a message that everyone is responsible for preventing another similar tragedy.
Sunao Tsuboi heads an atomic bomb survivor's organization. When the blast occurred, he was about 1 kilometer from the hypocenter. He's been actively rallying for a world without nuclear weapons.
He says they do not need apologies or revenge, but a world working together.
"There's no question I went through a terrible experience. But we survivors must move forward, and everyone help each other. People ask me if I’m full of hate. Of course I am. But that’s separate from the wish to pursue happiness," Tsuboi says.
Hiroshima's hope for peace has been translated into various languages for the many foreign visitors who visit there.
"It's a lesson of wisdom for humanity. War must end. We must engage in dialogue and live in peace," says Romaine Arlettaz, a Swiss visitor to the city.
In the park, there is also a memorial commemorating ethnic Koreans. At the time, the Korean peninsula was under Japan's colonial rule. Many were conscripted to Hiroshima.
Iri and Toshi Maruki exposed the immediate horror of the blast through their paintings. The Japanese couple also depicted the killing of American prisoners of war in Hiroshima. Their visual message conveys the reality of war that anyone can be aggressor or victim.
Tsuboi joined with President Obama earlier on Friday to commemorate the victims in the Peace Memorial Park. Over the years, he learned the importance of overcoming historical differences.
"Atomic bomb survivors aren't the only ones in the right, and neither are Americans. Everyone has their faults. We should use common sense as common understanding of history. It's useless to continue pointing fingers at each other. We must think rationally. Then we'll all be able to join hands," Tsuboi says.
The people of Hiroshima will continue their international campaign for nuclear abolition, and ensure that what happened here 71 years ago will never be repeated.
Beppu: Koko, you told me before that you experienced a kind of transformation, and how to perceive the atomic bombing. You said that only you, you were the only people in Hiroshima. But later, or now, you think that's not the case. Can you tell me about that?
Kondo: I grew up in Hiroshima. I went to elementary school and junior high. So since I was a little girl, I only heard about the survivors, the tragedy. But 20 years, I went around the world, especially to Egypt, like Korea or China. Then I learned there are so many people who have really hard feelings toward the Japanese. So before I tried to give a talk, I have to say "sorry because I'm a Japanese." Then they say "no, you don't have to say apologies." Then we can get really close to each other. Then I hope we can work towards peace.
Beppu: Professor Shinoda, Koko just explained us about how she was able to expand her understanding of the victims of the bomb. Having said that, I understand that initially, after the bomb, facing this massive destruction, this city was full of hatred and revenge, no?
Shinoda: It's a matter of course that there was a great level of feeling of hatred, and an initial period of time where people said to me they were only thinking of the possibility of revenge against the United States for some natural reasons. And so, so many things have happened since the bombing until the time of the US president's official visit today. And I would like to say that each, every single survivor, hibakusha, has his or her own story of reconstruction, which is the enormous legacy of Hiroshima.
Beppu: Looking today's event from that perspective, from the perspective of people in Hiroshima looking for a more wide perspective, which means global peace, how do think today's event fits in that context?
Shinoda: Well quite frankly, personally, sincerely I would like to thank US president Obama for acknowledging hibakusha in his own speech, and he spent the time communicating with hibakusha in person, talking to them, and then even having a hug with them as well, which was a wonderful moment for the entire history of Hiroshima, and many, many personal histories of hibakusha. They made so much effort in building this symbolic city for peace for 71 years, they deserve to be greeted by the US president. They deserve to be praised by many people in the world, including Japanese people, the US president as well. I think that it happened today. So I hope that building on the legacy created today, we would like to illustrate and develop more possibilities of Hiroshima in terms of personal stories of reconstruction, including leadership in local societies, about many personal, individual people's stories. And I really, really hope that President Obama made a significant impact and contribution for us to start this new era of developing reconstruction stories.
Beppu: A very quick follow-up. In the speech, President Obama not only about victims, but he also touched upon the Korean victims. What is your take on that?
Shinoda: As I said in the previous question, he carefully and very politely mentioned our Asian neighbors, especially including Koreans. As I said, many survivors and the older individuals, hibakusha people, have their own distinctive stories of reconstruction, including of course Korean individual hibakusha. Perhaps we only slightly mentioned their presence, their effort, in the 71-year history. However, again I would like to say that in the future, from today, if we spare time and spend more energy in developing, cultivating, more fascinating and great human stories of Korean survivors, we will be very much please. And I hope that the importance of today's event will be increased.
Hiroshima in America
In the United States, there's widespread belief that the atomic bomb was necessary and saved many lives.
That’s why, before Obama visited Hiroshima, many Americans stressed he should not apologize for the attack.
Psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton has studied how Americans perceive the atomic bombings.
"We spoke of Hiroshima as America's raw nerve. My argument is that it is very difficult for any country to come to a term with its atrocities. It tries to block them out. That has been America's effort," he says.
Lifton says when Americans hear the word "Hiroshima," they have conflicting reactions. One is awareness that nuclear weapons pose a threat to humanity. But there's also the sense that their use was justified.
"We are swinging back and forth between awareness and what I called "psyche-egonomy," to diminish the capacity and inclination to feel, when nuclear issues come up," Lifton says.
In July 1945, the US, Britain and China demanded Japan surrender by issuing the Potsdam Declaration. But Japan refused to accept it at that point.
On Aug. 6, then-US President Harry S. Truman released a statement describing the first use of the atomic bomb in war.
"With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe," Truman said.
Lifton quotes Truman's statement at the beginning of his book "Hiroshima in America; 50 Years of Denial." He argues that the points Truman raised have dominated the American narrative regarding nuclear weapons.
Lifton points out that Truman's statement referred to the bomb's unprecedented destructive power, but did not mention what it did to human beings.
Media coverage of Hiroshima was tightly controlled in the US after the war. In 1946, American journalist John Hersey caused a sensation when he wrote a magazine article describing the effects of the bomb.
Hersey spoke to survivors in Hiroshima. He described their lives and the reality they faced. His report caused readers to doubt the legitimacy of the government's decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan.
Former US Secretary of State of War Henry Stimson tried to rebut such criticism. He said the atomic bombings ended the war and prevented a large number of casualties that would have come from an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
"We estimated that if we should be forced to carry this plan to its conclusion, the major fighting would not end until the latter part of 1946, at the earliest. Such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone," Stimson said.
Lifton says that narrative continues in the US.
"There is a whole political process in the America. The more or less what is called conservatives you can call it, right wings or reactionary, which says in effect, Obama is weakly apologizes too much, that is why the issue of apology looms large. They are reluctant to have the President go and offer compassionate response," he says.
Lifton visited Hiroshima for the first time in 1962 when he was a young scholar at Yale University.
People suffering the effects of the atomic bomb were a common sight in the city at that time. Lifton interviewed survivors to learn about their suffering and mental situation. He says that experience totally changed his life, and his view of the world.
"Living there for 6 months gave me a powerful sense of what the danger was," Lifton says. "From a split second in time, a person exposed to the atomic bomb, could undergo lifelong emerging in death. Having to do with receiving the death around him or heard at the time of the bomb, then the acute radiation effects and deadly purple spots, and then the longer term radiation effects."
Lifton began to take part in anti-nuclear activities. In 1975, he joined a rally held by atomic survivors in Hiroshima that called for nuclear weapons tests to be banned.
More than 3 decades after the war, the US National Archives made public its information relating to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That led to increased public awareness of the threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity.
I believe that awareness has helped prevent the use of the weapons since 1945. The world has come to use this, dangerously close, and it's still quite problematic to have any of them around. In that sense, what hibakusha have said and other anti-nuclear activists have said, to make known and deepen that awareness of the weapons could well have helped their further use," Lifton says.
In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution planned to hold an exhibition on the atomic bombings. The idea was to describe both the debate over using the bomb, and its effects on people.
But harsh criticism from a US veterans' group caused the Smithsonian to cancel the section of the exhibition containing items that showed the effects of the bombs.
"This is one of unusual situations that I found in my 50 years of legion membership forced to face," one US veteran said.
"The cancellation was revealed to be an attack on truth. In that sense, we were all emerged from Smithsonian, the debacle with some energy toward telling that truth about Hiroshima. It could not quite to be stopped," Lifton said.
Lifton says that although the Cold War is over, that doesn't mean the threat of nuclear proliferation has ended. Lifton hopes that President Obama's visit will become a catalyst to spread more awareness in the US about the horror of the nuclear weapons.
"Over the years, there is a gradual opening out of the American people to Hiroshima," he says. "The president's visit opens further to Americanize the horror and the sufferings. It makes a strong statement to the effect that official narrative is not enough. It is not accurate. Official narrative is replaced by compassion and recognition of what dreadful event it was."
Beppu: In a 1945 survey of Americans, 85 percent of respondents said they approved of dropping the atomic bombs. But recent surveys show the number has decreased between 50 and 60 percent. So Peter, seeing this number, do you think we can understand the myth, or the official narrative regarding this dropping the bombs, is changing rapidly in your country?
Kuznick: No. It's changing very, very slowly. And that's the problem. But what we do find is that people under the age of 30 are opposed to the dropping of the atomic bombs. The older generation, the people who have lived with that myth for 50, 60, 70 years, cling to it very, very stubbornly.
Beppu: What makes this myth the most myth?
Kuznick: Well, the history, the facts, the evidence. We know that the Americans knew that the Japanese felt that they were defeated by the spring of 1945. We'd been intercepting the Japanese cables. We knew that they were looking for an honorable way to end the war. American leaders knew that there were 2 other options for ending the war without using the bombs. One was telling the Japanese that they could keep the Emperor, changing the demand for unconditional surrender. The other was to wait for the Soviet invasion. American intelligence kept saying in the spring of '45 that the Soviet invasion would convince all Japanese that defeat was inevitable. And Truman understood this better than anybody. Truman refers to the intercepted July 18th telegram, that's the telegram from the Japanese Emperor asking for peace. And he says that Stalin will be in the Japanese war by Aug. 15. He writes home to his wife Bess, saying "the Russians are coming in. We'll end the war sooner now. Think of the boys now who won't be killed."
Beppu: Then do you think that with today's speech that Obama made, this myth is changing?
Kuznick: Unfortunately not. Obama said that we have to responsibility, to look history right in its eyes. He said we've got to tell a different story to our children. And yet he says that World War 2 ended with the brutal bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That's the myth. The myth is that the bombings ended the war.
Beppu: So with today's visit, it's not the end of the story. What are the challenges that are left now?
Kuznick: The challenge now is to reach people, it's to do more and more education, to reach them at all levels: in the elementary schools, the junior high schools, the high schools, the colleges and the public at large. That's the burden that lies ahead of us.
Sho Beppu's Analysis
Through our special coverage today, we have been discussing about, among others, what in fact is Hiroshima's "Message of Peace."
It is certainly not a message of "revenge," saying, "We are the ones who suffered; we should inflict the same damage on our perpetrators."
It is certainly not a message of unilateral "victimhood," saying that, "We are the victims; we are the only innocent ones that deserve to be pitied."
It is certainly not a message of "washing away," saying, "Well, let's forget about what happened in the past; we should just look toward the future."
Of course, we are all free to interpret the Hiroshima's message of peace in our own way.
But, I think we can agree that the historic visit of a sitting US president to this city is giving us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of this message.
How about you? What is your understanding? How do you interpret Hiroshima's "Message of Peace"?
For myself, I would say that it is about "responsibility"; a responsibility to act, in my capacity, and not hand over the threat of decimation by more suffering from nuclear arsenals to our next generation.
And, with that, I wrap up our special coverage from Hiroshima.