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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Did Obama feel depth of A-bomb survivors' wounds?

Rika Kayama

U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima on May 27, and in the presence of atomic bomb survivors, he laid flowers at the cenotaph for the victims of the bombing that destroyed the city on Aug. 6, 1945.

    "We come to ponder a 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 prisoner. Their souls speak to us," Obama said during a speech, speaking carefully. He emphasized that humanity should strive for a world free of nuclear weapons.

    I wonder how the A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, and the relatives of A-bomb victims felt about his words. The psychological injury inflicted on survivors and the families of victims is surely very deep. However, it is only since the 1970s that psychiatrists began focusing on these injuries and their aftereffects. Particularly in Japan, for many years the terrible power of emotional scars and the extent of their depth tended to go unnoticed.

    In the 1990s, Japan experienced large-scale natural disasters and terrorism, and long-term sufferers of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) began to go to see psychiatrists. Experts started to realize for the first time how many people had suffered PTSD from the atomic bombings and began engaging in studies and research into the subject. However, it seems that by this time, many of the A-bomb survivors had already passed away, while others, having grown old, were refusing to talk about their experiences.

    Experts who began focusing on A-bomb victims at an early stage included American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and Japan's Masao Nakazawa. Their primary works -- Lifton's "Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima" and Nakazawa's "Hibakusha no Kokoro no Kizu o Otte" (Searching out the psychological wounds of the A-bomb survivors) -- vividly describe the severity and long-lasting nature of PTSD caused by the atomic bombings. According to Nakazawa, compared to PTSD caused by other disasters or crimes, A-bomb induced PTSD is very unusual and can actually worsen with time rather than improve. The victims may for decades desperately living with those thoughts and feelings sealed away, telling themselves, "There is no point in thinking about it," only to have the fear and sadness of the past well back up when, as they approach the end of their lives, they let down their emotional guard.

    After he took office, Obama proclaimed his aim to seek a nuclear-free world, and he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He now has a little over half a year left in his term. After his speech at Hiroshima, Obama spoke directly with two A-bomb survivors, and I wonder what went through his mind then. Was he able to sense the depth of the A-bomb survivors' wounds? Were the A-bomb survivors and relatives of the deceased who watched Obama on television able to obtain some measure of psychological healing? I can only hope that was the case. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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