Commentary: Touching image of Obama’s embrace of A-bomb survivor oversimplifies reality

by Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writer

After U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, he greeted A-bomb survivor Shigeaki Mori, 79, a resident of Nishi Ward who was invited to attend the ceremony. As Mr. Mori broke down in emotion, the president embraced him.

Mr. Mori, a local historian, has spent decades investigating the lives and fates of the dozen American prisoners of war who were killed in the Hiroshima bombing. As he prayed for the repose of their lost souls, he sought out family members of these soldiers living in the U.S.

The photograph of President Obama embracing Mr. Mori was instantly shown around the world. Although a moving scene, as a journalist for the Chugoku Shimbun, I find it disconcerting that this image is being widely interpreted as a full “reconciliation” between the American president and A-bomb survivors. Why?

An interview that I conducted during travels to the U.S. in early May unexpectedly triggered a connection between the Obama administration and Mr. Mori.

This was before the official announcement of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was made. I had contacted Japanese and U.S. government sources to collect information about this visit, and I asked a U.S. government source how Mr. Obama feels about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When I added that the victims of these attacks also included American prisoners of war, there was a sudden reaction: This person, admitting to being unaware that U.S. soldiers had died in the bombing, began taking notes.

I said, “When Americans justify the atomic bombings, the fact that American citizens were killed in the atomic bombings, too, is a source of embarrassment. Because of this, they haven’t paid attention to these American soldiers and talking about them has been difficult, particularly for the family members.” The government representative gave me a small nod of agreement. I then told him about Shigeaki Mori, an A-bomb survivor who has been devoted to investigating the lost American soldiers, at his own expense, over the course of many years. I noted, too, that he had arranged for a plaque to be installed in Hiroshima to honor the lives of these men, believing that their lives, and the sorrow felt by their families, were equal to the other A-bomb dead and their bereaved family members. I then suggested that President Obama meet Mr. Mori and that they pay their respects, together, to the souls of both the Japanese and American victims.

A few days before President Obama came to Hiroshima, I received an email from the U.S. government that asked for Mr. Mori’s contact information, and I promptly replied. On the day of Mr. Obama’s historic visit to this city, I watched the president and Mr. Mori, who was invited to the ceremony by the U.S. side, from a distance in the press corner, which had been set up at the venue.

“We see these stories in the hibakusha--the man who sought out families of Americans killed here, because he believed their loss was equal to his own.” This phrase in Mr. Obama’s speech made me gasp. Then, when I saw the president patting Mr. Mori’s back, my heart pounded in excitement. The following morning, I received an email from the U.S. government, thanking me for my suggestion.

I don’t know what was discussed among the key people of the Obama administration, based on the information supplied from our side, but surely there was sympathy, on a human level, when it came to the silent and neglected American victims of the Hiroshima bombing and the A-bomb survivor who has long stood by their souls.

After President Obama’s speech, Mr. Mori said with emotion, “I never imagined that I would meet President Obama and shake his hand.” He was overjoyed at the fact that his hard work, over so many years, had paid off in this way. In addition, that morning Mr. Mori had received an email from Barry Frechette, 45, an American film director, telling Mr. Mori that the 12 American prisoners of war would be with Mr. Mori at the ceremony. Mr. Frechette created a documentary, titled “Paper Lanterns,” that follows Mr. Mori’s story and his exchange with American family members of the A-bombed soldiers. Mr. Mori said that his sense of satisfaction from the longtime efforts he has made, as well as the message from Mr. Frechette, helped him maintain his composure during the overwhelming experience of the ceremony.

In embracing Mr. Mori, President Obama was embracing the survivor’s many emotions as he persisted, alone, with his research efforts; the regrets of the American prisoners of war; and the tears of their family members. These are the people most deserving of our appreciation.

Viewed from another angle, the image of this embrace should not be emblematic of relations in general between A-bomb survivors and the U.S. president.

From the global media, and particularly media in Western nations, I got the impression that photographs of this scene are being used as a symbol of “reconciliation” between Japan and the United States. This idea of reconciliation would have been part of the Obama administration’s intention in their choice to invite Mr. Mori to attend the ceremony. It also seems evident that the U.S. government wanted to send the message to American citizens at home that President Obama mourns the American soldiers and citizens who lost their lives in the Pacific War.

However, the thoughts and feelings of A-bomb survivors differ widely from person to person. Some condone the decision to use the atomic bombs, while others want the U.S. to take responsibility for these actions and they seek an apology. Both sides have deeply-rooted considerations and justifiable grounds. An image that oversimplifies this reality, though, risks muting the voices of others.

What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945? What lives have been lived by the A-bomb survivors for the past 71 years? To convey the reality of the range of consequences brought about by the atomic bombs, we must persist in sending out messages from Hiroshima, just as we did prior to President Obama’s visit to the A-bombed city.

(Originally published on June 1, 2016)