HIROSHIMA, Japan — Almost 71 years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb here, killing more than 140,000 people, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city, and express his condolences to the people of Hiroshima and all of the innocent victims who died in the war. He received a surprisingly warm welcome; the same couldn’t be said for his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
While Obama may not have satisfied those in the United States who portrayed the visit itself as an unwarranted apology, he appeared to have fulfilled the hopes of many in Hiroshima, especially the remaining survivors of the atomic blast known as hibakusha (those who were exposed to the radiation and damages from the atomic bomb). While Obama had an enthusiastic reception and spoke with forceful conviction to the small crowd of people allowed to attend the ceremony at Peace Memorial Park, Abe seemed oddly uncomfortable. It’s not surprising: His last visit to Hiroshima, in August 2015, was greeted with jeers and his failure to affirm Japan’s “peace constitution” or touch upon the almost sacred “three non-nuclear principles”—not possessing, not producing, and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the tight security was not only there to protect President Obama but also to protect the prime minister from the angry voices of Hiroshima residents.
While Obama shook hands with two hibakusha, engaging them in conversation, even hugging one of them, Abe looked on awkwardly, keeping his distance from the two men like they were lepers; they in turn seemed to have no interest in speaking to the prime minister.
Obama’s speech was masterfully phrased and in the opening remarks, he appeared to step on Abe’s toes by reminding those attending that, “We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.”
It was a subtle reminder that Japan had started the war and that while the bombing of Hiroshima was horrific, Japan could not use it to play the victim forever. The Koreans who died at Hiroshima were not there as tourists; many were virtual slave labor, or conscripts under Imperial Japan’s harsh rule. No doubt Harry S. Truman would have approved of the mention of U.S. POWs. In fact, in response to an Aug. 9, 1945 telegram deploring the use of the atomic bomb from Mr. Samuel Cavert, the general secretary of the Federal Council of the Churches in Christ in America, Truman bluntly responded on Aug. 11, 1945:
“I appreciated very much your telegram… Nobody is more disturbed over the use of the atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war.”
There were discussions about having a former POW attend the ceremony, which apparently did not come to fruition, but Obama did nod in their direction. And one of the survivors he met with, Shigeaki Mori, 79, was a hibakusha who had also spent years researching the demise of U.S. prisoners of war who had also died in the bombing.
Prior to the arrival of Obama, the streets near the park were lined with eager citizens hoping to catch a glimpse of the president on his way to the ceremony.
“I respect President Obama for coming here today, despite opposition in his own country. No apology was needed. That he came and paid his respects was meaningful. We hope that it’s a step forward to a world without nuclear arms,” said Toshio Wada, a retired office worker whose own mother was 26 when the atomic bomb was dropped. He grew up hearing stories of the living hell that followed, of burnt victims walking the streets with their flesh hanging off their arms like ill-fitting clothes.
Yoko Watanabe, who was born the day after the start of World War II, was also exposed to the deadly radiation of the atomic blast, at the mere age of 3. Yet she too didn’t demand an apology or expect one. She said, “We never expected the president of the United States to visit, but we are so happy that he did, and we hope that the prayers of Hiroshima will reach the world and echo through in President Obama’s actions, towards a nuclear-free world.”
Wada also explained why many felt Obama didn’t need to apologize. “I think that the Japanese people are a people who will accept things only ‘as is’ in its entirety. We don’t have that character of demanding an apology just for the sake of it. Japanese people hope for something genuine that comes after accepting everything that has happened, not a forced apology for the sake of an apology.”
He said that he had attended last year’s annual speech, and while avoiding direct criticism of the prime minister, stated that “It didn’t feel like his heart was quite in it. It seems to have become more of a ritual over the years. Not so sincere, maybe too indirect.”
In Japan, one of the most prized virtues is sincerity. 誠意 is the Japanese word for it, meaning a heart without lies or falsehood; a state of mind without self-interest or selfish desire. Perhaps Obama’s visit is partially motivated by his wish to leave a legacy behind, but few here today doubted that he wished for and strived to build a world without nuclear weapons, to advance nuclear disarmament, and that his condolences for the innocent victims of warfare were sincere.
Many people in Hiroshima don’t feel the same way about Abe and his cabinet. Since taking office, he’s passed a state-secrets bill that echoes Imperial Japan’s laws restraining freedom of the press in the build-up to World War II. Members of his cabinet have expressed the desirability of Japan having nuclear weapons and Abe’s coalition government pushed through heavily opposed security bills that will allow Japanese soldiers to fight on foreign soil for the first time since that war. Of course, before pushing through the legislation the government issued an official “reinterpretation” of the constitution. On the 69th anniversary of the bombing, in 2014, when a group of hibakusha met Abe and beseeched him face-to-face to withdraw the pending legislation, Abe blew them off. The speech he gave that day was criticized for recycling his speech from 2013.
In some ways, it almost seems that Abe finds the atomic bomb survivors distasteful, a living reminder of a war that Japan should have won. Japan was also working on an atomic bomb as the war closed and was making progress in producing a workable prototype. In fact, uranium being shipped by the Nazis to Japan was intercepted en route and reportedly later used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Japan itself has a complicated relationship with the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On one hand, the survivors are venerated, yet the government had long fought to limit the number of those seeking official recognition—making them eligible for special assistance. Survivors who feel they suffered from radiation exposure, but have not been recognized as victims, have filed numerous lawsuits.
As if to add insult to injury, on April 1, the Abe cabinet officially announced their viewpoint that Article 9 of Japan’s constitution—which renounces war—did not expressly forbid Japan from having or using nuclear weapons, while at the same time, claiming Japan would continue to uphold the three non-nuclear principles.
When Abe was prime minister for the first time, in 2006-2007, he refused to even meet with the hibakusha, who were seeking official recognition of their suffering.
President Obama was asked to meet with hibakusha, hear their stories face to face, and he did.
Whether Obama’s speech was more sincere than the words of Abe, only the two of them can really know. But for many in Japan, the sincerity of the president’s words left a favorable impression and raised hopes that perhaps today’s visit was a meaningful step toward a world without nuclear arms.
On NHK, Terumi Tanaka, 84, the representative of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations, which represents survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, praised Obama’s speech and his conduct at the ceremony. He met with victims of the bombing and he took in the full impact of the horrors of atomic warfare.
Even a retired yakuza (Yamaguchi-gumi) member, aged 75, who ended up in Hiroshima after serving his time in a prison here, had kind words for Obama. “It’s really quite something that he came here. I have great respect for him. Abe? To hell with him. He’s an irrelevant tanuki (shape-shifting badger-dog) who says one thing and means something else in his heart. But Obama: Respect.”