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As I See It: President Obama, listen to Japan's A-bomb survivors

From left, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond lay wreaths at the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, in Hiroshima on April 11, 2016. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- It's looking increasingly likely that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima. The United States dropped an A-bomb on this city almost 71 years ago, and it would be a truly historical moment if Obama indeed did come.

    Some of the groundwork for a presidential visit was laid on April 11, when the Group of Seven (G-7) foreign ministers -- including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- laid wreaths at the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and visited the museum.

    I was covering Kerry that day. On the one hand, I saw true human kindness in Kerry, which gave me hope that he would understand the thoughts and feelings of the A-bomb survivors. On the other hand, I was bitterly disappointed that he did not meet with any of them to hear their stories first-hand. I hope that, if President Obama comes, he will face his country's atomic attack on this city squarely.

    The press corps was not permitted to follow the G-7 ministers into the Peace Memorial Museum, so I had no chance to see Kerry's reaction to the exhibits; the pictures and personal items of the dead that tell the all-too tragic story of the bombing. However, in the museum guestbook he wrote that "everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial."

    It seems Kerry was shaken by his experience. Just after the G-7 ministers had laid their wreaths at the cenotaph, Kerry had a quick sotto voce word with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and the group suddenly changed course. Amid a flurry of police officers running to reposition themselves, the ministers walked the few hundred meters to the Atomic Bomb Dome. There, Kerry reportedly asked Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui, "Where did the A-bomb explode?"

    I thought Kerry's request to see the dome up close was very kind-hearted. People who stand before it come to feel that they must know, must understand about nuclear weapons, and it seems Kerry felt the same way.

    I was born in Tokyo, and I first visited the museum when I was in grade five, after my father was transferred to Hiroshima. The photos of the people with hideous burns scared me, but I did not look away. Many of my school friends in my new home were the grandchildren of A-bomb survivors. From then on, the moment of silence at 8:15 a.m. every Aug. 6 became a natural and obvious ritual. I lived in Hiroshima until I graduated from high school. I went to a university in Tokyo, but when I joined the newspaper my top choice for my inaugural posting was Nagasaki. I was in the Nagasaki bureau until March this year.

    I've visited Nagasaki A-bomb survivor Yoshitoshi Fukahori, 87, many times. Though he is by nature a cheerful man, when he thinks back to when he was just 16, wandering the blast zone looking for his family, he begins to cry as though it all happened just yesterday.

    "I'm living 70 years in the past," he once told me. The words surprised me. How many people's lives did the A-bomb change drastically and forever? The bomb became more real to me as I absorbed the thoughts and feelings of the survivors.

    I have this to say to Secretary Kerry and the Japanese government: If you had the time to tour Hiroshima, then I'd have hoped you would have given an hour or even just 30 minutes to meet and listen to the A-bomb survivors.

    When asked at a news conference what he thought of the photos of the bomb victims, Kerry replied that the museum exhibit is "brilliantly done, remarkably powerful, very important message to anybody who sees it, not just about that particular bomb, but about what happens in a world with massive weapons of destruction, even conventional weapons that have huge capacity today to do enormous damage."

    If Secretary Kerry had actually met some of the survivors, I wonder if, as the chief diplomat for the country that dropped the bomb, he could have resorted to such generalizations.

    The G-7 foreign ministers' Hiroshima Declaration issued at the conclusion of the summit states that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced "human suffering" in the atomic bombings. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has chosen to translate this term as the Japanese equivalent of "inhuman hardships."

    Haruko Moritaki, the 77-year-old co-director of the Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, has criticized the translation for "co-opting the term 'inhumanity,' which hibakusha use to condemn nuclear weapons."

    "The hibakusha have declared that such suffering can never be allowed to happen again. This is based in the idea that we must go beyond such political issues as who is responsible for dropping the bombs and communicate the sheer inhuman nature of nuclear arms," Moritaki added. "I wanted to see this problem addressed from that perspective."

    Personally, I am glad that my own education in pacifism did not include resentment toward the United States. This has made me hope all the more that the U.S., too, will face up to the fact that it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the consequences. I want children in the U.S. and indeed all over the world to feel that nuclear weapons are horrific and should never be used, just as children in Japan do.

    Concern over nuclear weapons is not low among the people of the world. Last fiscal year, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum welcomed more than 330,000 foreign visitors, accounting for about 20 percent of all visitors, and a new record. I was transferred to the Mainichi Shimbun's Hiroshima Bureau in April this year, and I visited Peace Memorial Park for the first time in a long while. I was honestly surprised by how many foreigners I saw in the park.

    According to the museum, foreign visitors tend to spend a long time taking in the exhibits. When I asked a 26-year-old British museumgoer what she thought of the experience, she replied that it was different from everything she had learned about the A-bombings before, and that she would absolutely recommend her family to come as well.

    A visit by President Obama ought to be a first step in the United States finally facing the misery brought by the A-bomb. I wish deeply, from the bottom of my heart, that he will listen to the survivors' stories and pass on his honest impressions to his fellow citizens and to the world. (By Asako Takeuchi, Hiroshima Bureau)

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