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As I See It: What were the true feelings of hibakusha during Obama's Hiroshima trip?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the city’s Naka Ward on May 27, 2016, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listens. (Pool photo)

Barack Obama on May 27 became the first sitting president of the country that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to visit Hiroshima. He touched on his ideal of a world without nuclear weapons, and many atomic-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, hailed his visit as a major step forward toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

    Ahead of the historic visit, the Japanese government repeatedly told the United States that it was not seeking an apology. For certain, many hibakusha expressed such a position, but the Japanese government did not necessarily have a firm understanding of their true feelings. Squarely facing this misalignment, Japan should, as the only country to have been bombed in warfare, clearly work out a direction to take in aiming to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

    On the day of Obama's visit, I waited for him to arrive a little distance away from the place where he laid a wreath in front of the cenotaph for atomic-bomb victims. Many people at the ceremony looked behind them when the president arrived and entered the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to the rear. But Sunao Tsuboi, 91, and Mikiso Iwasa, 87, representative members of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations were not among them.

    "I didn't want to rush him. I wanted him to spend as much time as possible in the museum," Iwasa later explained.

    The peace memorial museum contains material conveying the gruesome nature of the atomic bomb. When it exploded, well over 100,000 people either died in an instant or perished amid suffering and fear. And those who are still alive continue to suffer physically from exposure to radiation. Iwasa wanted the reality of the bombing to be conveyed to Obama.

    Among the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing is Emiko Okada, 79. She was 8 years old when it hit, killing her sister four years older than her.

    "I don't seek an apology," she said.

    She has spoken in the United States regarding her experiences in the atomic bombing numerous times, and many times listeners have told her, "Pearl Harbor came first." From this experience, she has come to think, "If you argue about which side was right or wrong, you won't make any progress. And besides, the feeling of hibakusha is not such that words alone allow them to forgive."

    There was one event in the past that made Okada keenly feel how little the world knew about nuclear weapons. Last year she went to Norway to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and talked there about her experiences in the atomic bombing. She said many people were surprised that so many victims could die in a single bombing -- a fact that reversely surprised her. Due to people laying the blame on each other, ignorance had spread in the world and if something wasn't done about it the situation wouldn't improve.

    That's precisely why she welcomed Obama's visit.

    Hiroshi Harada, a Hiroshima bombing survivor and former director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, previously thought, "No matter what happens, we must pursue responsibility for dropping the atomic bomb." After Obama's visit, he acknowledged that feeling and said he couldn't come to terms with the visit. That's because it was a direct experience of the deep-seated justification for the bombing that exists in the United States.

    In April 1993, when Harada assumed his role as museum director, he received a request from the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution for the loan of A-bombed material. He heard it was to be displayed alongside the Enola Gay, the B-29 plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

    He invited the head of the Smithsonian museum to the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima. Looking at the expression on the curator's face, he felt, "The heart of Hiroshima has gotten through." The Hiroshima Municipal Government decided to loan the material with conditions in November the same year, but a U.S. military veterans group was vehemently opposed to the exhibition, and this forced its cancellation. The Enola Gay continues to be displayed with emphasis on a "history of glory" alone.

    During the exhibition's planning stage, Smithsonian officials strongly sought to borrow a male junior high school boy's burned lunchbox. But the boy's mother, who donated it to the museum, told Harada, "I still have a feeling of not being able to forgive the United States. Don't let it be put up for show in an enemy country." Until the end she couldn't be persuaded.

    Having come into contact with such painful feelings, Harada comments, "You can't easily say, 'We don't seek an apology.'"

    "Future-oriented (a term the government often uses) doesn't mean not questioning the past. It means facing past mistakes and moving forward," he says.

    It was with such thoughts deep in people's hearts that Hiroshima as a whole welcomed President Obama to the city.

    During the ceremony in Hiroshima, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also spoke. It seemed as if he wanted to create the impression that his speech at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress last year in which he reflected on the history between Japan and the United States was a trigger for Obama's visit to Hiroshima.

    Iwasa noted a difference in the way the two leaders spoke.

    "President Obama spoke from the perspective of mankind, while Prime Minister Abe spoke from the perspective of the Japan-U.S. alliance," he lamented.

    In international politics, the Japanese government had taken a stance that marks a departure from the feelings of Hiroshima. It has been half-hearted in concluding a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, and is still under the spell of the "nuclear umbrella."

    At the ceremony in Hiroshima, Abe mentioned the light of peace at Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park and said that it was lit with the hope for eternal peace. He should correctly understand that the flame was lit to keep burning until nuclear weapons are eliminated from the face of the earth. In the A-bombed city, people hope the Japanese government will make an effort to enable this flame to be put out as quickly as possible. (By Shun Teraoka, Hiroshima Bureau)

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