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Obama in Hiroshima 5 years on (Pt.1): A hibakusha reflects on embracing president's visit

Hibakusha Shigeaki Mori is seen reflecting on his 2016 hug with then U.S. President Barack Obama, with the picture of the moment by his side, in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward on May 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- Five years ago on May 27, 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima; it marked the first time for a sitting president to come to the west Japan city since American destroyed it with a single nuclear bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

    To mark the anniversary, the Mainichi Shimbun reflects in a two-part series on the last five years and looks at what the historic trip meant, and what role Japan should play to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

    Then U.S. President Barack Obama is seen hugging hibakusha Shigeaki Mori at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on May 27, 2016. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

    "It still seems like a dream," said Shigeaki Mori, the 84-year-old A-bomb survivor, or hibakusha, from Hiroshima's Nishi Ward, who was embraced by Obama on that day in front of the cenotaph for the victims at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Images of Mori choked with tears were broadcast to all corners of the world. He became the man of the moment, and was interviewed by numerous major American media outlets; pictures of the two hugging appeared in Japanese high-school text books on world history, social studies and even ethics. The experience led him to feel the long years of hard work had paid off.

    Mori was exposed to the atomic bomb at age 8; he was some 2.5 kilometers from the hypocenter. In the 1970s, he learned that American soldiers in Hiroshima were also killed in the explosion, and while working as a company employee, he conducted research on these soldiers. He identified 12 American POWs who became victims, and via letters and overseas phone calls, he contacted the bereaved families, who until then had no access to details of how their loved ones lost their lives.

    It wasn't until the Mori household received a 70,000-yen (about $640) bill for a month of international calls that his wife Kayoko, 78, noticed what he was up to. "No one knew about my perseverance," he said.

    This photo taken on May 21, 2021, shows the pages of Japanese senior high-school textbooks that featured the meeting between Shigeaki Mori and then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    Obama began his speech in Hiroshima by describing the event as "death fell from the sky and the world was changed." He praised Mori as "the man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own." This visit, preceded by his April 2009 Prague speech in which he declared he would seek a world without nuclear weapons, was hailed globally as a historical step forward.

    After his remarks in Prague, Obama did indeed make efforts to lessen the nuclear threat. In 2010, he signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. But at the same time, he was also criticized for authorizing a 1 trillion dollar, 30-year-program to "modernize" nuclear weapons. The visit to Hiroshima came at a point in his presidency when disarmament talks had stagnated due to soured U.S.-Russia relations, and he was struggling to maintain good political relations with Congress.

    Mori both sympathized with and applauded Obama, saying, "On the one hand the president had high ideals, but on the other, he faced difficulties in the reality of this nuclear-filled world. What is significant is that he at least suggested a nuclear-free world as an ideal."

    The administration of former President Donald Trump inaugurated in 2017 announced in its Nuclear Posture Review it intended to deploy nuclear warheads with smaller yields, which led some to point out that it lowered the threshold to use such weapons. The past five years have seen a stalemate in disarmament talks, but great progress was seen when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect in January 2021.

    This photo taken in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward on May 21, 2021, shows a part of the U.S. bomber Taloa, which was shot down by the Japanese, which was collected by Shigeaki Mori, who has been researching the fates of American soldiers exposed to the atomic bomb. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    Mori has high hopes this development could be a step in the right direction -- the abolition of nuclear weapons -- but he is furious at his own country for not ratifying the treaty. "What is Japan doing? Our national policy is based on the three non-nuclear principles, and we're supposed take the lead in realizing a nuclear-free world," he said. The three principles refer to not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons.

    To this day, Mori continues to research allied forces POWs in Japan. The incumbent U.S. President Joe Biden has confirmed he will also strive for a world without nuclear weapons. Mori feels positive: "I hope the president puts his full effort into achieving world peace. I definitely want him to visit Hiroshima."

    (Japanese original by Isamu Gari, Hiroshima Bureau)

    (This is Part 1 of a two-part series)

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