By NAO NAKANISHI, Rafu Staff Writer
On May 27, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. For both the U.S. and Japan, it was an unprecedented and historical moment.
The visit has generated some controversy in the U.S., with some critics interpreting the visit as an apology — something Obama did not offer and Japan did not request.
Obama’s visit was meaningful for the Japanese American community, especially the Kibei and Shin-Issei population, because there are many A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) and their descendants living here in Southern California, and they continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I strongly support Obama going to Japan and trying to strengthen the coalition against nuclear proliferation,” says Howard Kakita, 78, a Kibei (Sansei educated in Japan) and a survivor of Hiroshima.
“I think for me, an apology this time is meaningless 71 years since bomb dropped,” he added. “The people that should apologize are those people who made the decision to drop the A-bomb. That’s [President Harry] Truman and his Cabinet and some others involved.”
On May 22, members of the American Society of Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-Bomb Survivors (ASA), a non-profit organization, gathered at Koyasan Temple in Little Tokyo and four survivors shared their experiences and their opinions regarding Obama’s visit.
They all said they were glad to hear the news of Obama’s decision to go to Hiroshima since they had anticipated it for a long time and believed that it would have a great impact on nuclear non-proliferation worldwide and for future generations. They did not think that an apology was necessary.
After Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima on April 11, members of ASA decided to send a thousand postcards to the White House urging to Obama to do the same. In addition to 200 ASA members, their families and friends from other countries helped with the campaign. Of course, they do not know if their action influenced Obama’s decision, but their wishes indeed came true.
According to ASA, there are about a thousand atomic bomb survivors in the U.S. and many of them are living on the West Coast and in Hawaii. There are organizations like ASA in other parts of the country.
“They Were Sure We Were Dead”
Born in East Los Angeles in 1938, Kakita went to Hiroshima with his family to visit his sick grandfather and had to remain in Japan when the war broke out. When the atomic bomb was detonated, he was 7 years old and 0.8 mile from the hypocenter.
On Aug. 6 1945, he woke up to a really “beautiful morning.” When he was going to school, other students were coming back and saying that school was canceled as there was an air-raid warning.
“Being only eight-tenths of a mile from hypocenter, I didn’t see the flash. I didn’t hear the boom,” he recalled. “All I know was that some number of minutes later, I was knocked out instantaneously. When I came to, I was buried under a huge amount of debris.”
Fortunately, he was unharmed. Although his brother had slight radiation burns and his grandmother was bleeding under the debris, there were no fatal wounds. However, he saw a huge number of dead bodies and “people with broken bones sticking out of their bodies, guts sticking out. What was even worse was terrible burns, skin just dripping from their bodies. Patterns [from their clothes] seared into their bodies.”
In the meantime, his parents were in an internment camp in Arizona. “They get this newspaper that says a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It showed an aerial map and we were in the area of total destruction. They were sure we were dead.”
Junji Sarashina, 87, was born in Lahaina, Maui, in 1929 and went to Hiroshima to learn Japanese when he was 7 years old. The A-bomb was detonated when he was 16. He was working at a military factory 1.5 miles from the hypocenter.
“On Aug. 6, [there was a] tremendous explosion, bright orange light, and I was knocked off my feet. Fortunately, the building collapsed but I was not wounded,” said Sarashina, who estimated that he saw 5,000 to 6,000 dead people after the bombing.
“All of the wounded people asked for water, so I found a cup here or there and gave them something to drink,” he recalled. “A lot of them didn’t survive afterwards, but at least they got their last wish.”
Sarashina was sure that the people of Hiroshima would be very happy to see Obama.
“There must be pro and cons, yes,” he said. “But this might be the first step for a country or president to abolish nuclear weapons, which is going to save not only us but your kids, your grandkids and the future generations. So I am glad President Obama is going to Hiroshima to take a first step to save the world from being exposed to nuclear weapons.”
“Just Like an Angel”
Kaz Sueishi, 89, remembers seeing the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 at 8:15 a.m. She describes it as “just like an angel, dancing, beautiful.”
Sueishi was born in Pasadena in 1927 and moved to Hiroshima when she was 8 months old. She survived the atomic blast at the age of 18, 1.4 miles from the hypocenter.
When she saw a white spot emerge from the B-29 — the parachute carrying the bomb. She pointed at the object and asked her friend, “What’s that?” At that moment, “a very powerful yellowish orange” light came out, followed by a deafening explosion. Sueishi covered her eyes and ears, then lost consciousness. When she came to, she saw severely burned people and heard children calling for help.
Regarding Obama’s visit, she said that an apology from the president was not necessary. “Both countries have a responsibility about the war. I mean that people can’t have quarrels alone and always have opponents. People in both countries had a hard time during and after the war.”
She added that there is no use in comparing which country was worse or which suffered the most.
Following Obama’s speech at the Peace Memorial Park, Sueishi commented, “I thought Obama is a person who deeply wishes for a world without nuclear weapons, but he has stood in a very hard position … because he can’t make decisions only by himself. However, he showed his sincere and warm heart. His visit itself was very meaningful.”
“They Can’t Forget About It”
Wataru Namba, 88, was born in Acampo (near Stockton) in 1927 and moved to Hiroshima at age 7 to spend time with his grandparents. On that fateful day, he was 18 and a first-year student at an engineering school. He was 1.2 miles away from the hypocenter. At that time, his parents were incarcerated at the Tule Lake camp in California.
Namba later served as a translator for the U.S. military in the Korean War. After being discharged, he worked as an aircraft engineer in the U.S. He remembers conversations with his fellow engineers, who had many questions because they knew he was an A-bomb survivor.
“They didn’t really quite understand what the bomb did, especially people younger than my age,” he said. “… Although I explained what it was like right after the bomb was detonated, the only thing they cared about was whether the bombing was justified or not.” After that, Namba decided not to discuss his experience any further because he felt it would be in vain.
Namba thinks that the people of Hiroshima are delighted by Obama’s visit and hopes that they will feel closer to the U.S. because the U.S.-Japan relationship is very important.
“It’s not an apology because it’s war,” he said. “It is just important for Obama to express his heart and feeling toward those who lost their family or loved ones. They still remember people who they lost. They can’t forget about it, but at least if he comes over and offers flowers, it’s very nice and polite.
“I have never seen a president like Obama. Regardless of the G7 summit, I guess he secretly planned to visit for a long time. Although strong pros and cons exist, he made his decision. He is a warm-hearted human being. I am very impressed by him.”
Hibakusha are getting older and older. Their experiences, both as Kibei who were stuck in Japan during the war and as Japanese nationals who immigrated to the U.S. after the war, hold valuable lessons for current and future generations, but time is limited to hear their stories directly from them.
Sarashina says, “I think I can only talk one or two more years … Physically it will be getting harder for me to talk. There will be no people who can talk soon, but there is nothing I can do.”
He added, “There are more hibakusha in the Hiroshima Prefectural Association, for example, but there are people who don’t want to remember the past and share their experience. Or they are too old to talk …
“What I can only do is to keep conveying what I experienced to younger generations … I want to pin my hopes on them.”
After watching Obama’s speech on TV, Sarashina said, “As a hibakusha, and at the same time as a citizen of the U.S., I was really glad that Obama visited Hiroshima … I thought he did a great job, even politically … respecting hibakusha, the U.S. and Japan. I was touched to see the scenes — putting flowers, praying for the souls [of the dead] with closed eyes, hugging hibakusha, and visiting the museum.”
Obama noted in his speech that disarmament may not be achieved in his lifetime. Sarashina agreed, but added, “This is an important step to a world without nuclear weapons … This is a reality and a difficult thing, but someone has to start to work on it. I think only the president of the United States can do it.”
At the same time, he acknowledged, “In reality, there is a contradiction because we need to protect ourselves. The U.S. can’t be a defenseless state. The U.S. is going to renew those weapons, and the defense cost is so huge.”
Namba agreed that it is important for the U.S. to have nuclear weapons in these modern times. “‘A world without nuclear weapons’ is just a fantastic story and high-sounding talk.”
Kakita commented, “Do I think things will improve? I have strong doubts … North Korea, Iran, Islamic State … If they had access to nuclear weapons, do you think they would hesitate in using that? No, they are out to kill people. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear we may experience another Hiroshima or Nagasaki or even worse.
“They have had 71 years to improve the bomb. There are bombs now that are several orders of magnitude greater than the destruction that one caused. One of those big bombs could destroy the Earth, and we just need one stupid guy to make the decision to do so.”
He added, “Although the president did not directly apologize for the bombings, I believe he said that we should learn from the mistakes of the past, which implies the bombing was a mistake … Even seven out of eight five-star military officers at that time called the bombings ‘unnecessary’ and ‘morally reprehensible.’
“I totally endorse his message of non-proliferation … From Hiroshima and Nagasaki we have learned of the terrible consequences of nuclear war. However, I have serious concerns that President Obama’s speech will have little impact on some rogue states and countries … trying to develop nuclear weapons. I’ve read that even the United States is proposing to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize and enhance our stockpile. These are examples of how the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are being ignored.
“Having personally witnessed the devastation in Hiroshima, I cannot comprehend the insanity of any group or government that will contemplate the use of any nuclear weapon. Yet there are some that are escalating and threatening today. We must do everything in our power to stop nuclear war.”
Questions remain regarding how much “weight” their first-hand experiences, voices and feelings have in achieving “a world without nuclear weapons,” which Obama called for in a speech in Prague when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
The U.S. and its allies still believe the A-bomb was necessary to bring an earlier end to the war and save thousands of lives both in the U.S. and Japan. Also, many people still believe that nuclear weapons act as a deterrent to protect their own countries. The U.S. has the most nuclear weapons in the world and Japan is indeed protected by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.”
Meanwhile, research conducted by the Pew Research Center in August 2015 shows a new trend that might be described as cause for hope. The center revealed new findings using past surveys by the Gallup Poll and The Detroit Free Press.
When Gallup conducted a poll right after the bombing in 1945, 85 percent of Americans approved of the use of the new atomic weapons on Japanese cities, but in 2005, the figure dropped off to 57 percent.
A survey by The Detroit Free Press in 1991 showed that 63 percent of American said the use of atomic bombs was justified as a means of ending the war. But a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that Americans who believe the use of nuclear weapons was justified were down to 56 percent.
The Pew Research Center study also showed a large generational gap among Americans. Seven in ten Americans ages 65 and older said the use of atomic weapons was justified, but only 47 percent of 18-to 29-year-olds agreed.
Regarding the generational gap, research by international market research firm YouGov, based in the U.K., in August 2015 shows more details: “Among under-30s, 45 percent say that it was the wrong decision while 31 percent think it was the right decision. People aged 30 to 44 are divided on the issue, while most people aged 45 or above say that it was the right decision.”
If more of the younger generations share that idea that the A-bomb should not have been used, the number of nuclear weapons could be reduced. Changes in public opinion might have an impact on policy decisions. It might all depend on how this generation and future generations think about the issue and which is the stronger deterrent to nuclear war — the hibakusha’s stories or more nuclear weapons.
The hibakusha have no illusions that they alone can bring about disarmament. However, they also believe that their first-hand experiences as a hibakusha, living in between the U.S. and Japan, are a precious resource that must be utilized before their voices are silenced forever.
Photos by NAO NAKANISHI/Rafu Shimpo