After the President’s Visit to Hiroshima, Part 1: His footsteps in the A-bombed city

by Michiko Tanaka, Miho Kuwajima and Kana Kobayashi, Staff Writers

U.S. President Barack Obama paid a visit to Hiroshima prior to the 71st summer since the atomic bombing of the city. How did he spend his time here, as the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima? Will his visit have an impact on the international community? In this series, the Chugoku Shimbun explores the ramifications of the president’s visit on May 27.

On May 28, one day after U.S. President Barack Obama visited this city, excitement was still in the air at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Visitors to the park stood in a long line, waiting to offer their prayers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. Some looked for the wreath that Mr. Obama had laid the day before. Members of the media were also there to gather news.

“I was glued to the TV,” said Hisashi Takata, 69, who was visiting the park with his wife. A resident of Saeki Ward, Hiroshima, Mr. Takata lost his father two years ago and his mother last year. His parents were both A-bomb survivors. He expressed mixed feelings about Mr. Obama’s appearance, saying, “It was good that the president made a silent prayer in front of the cenotaph, but I was disappointed that he lumped the A-bomb survivors together with other victims of war in his speech.”

This is precisely why Hiroshima is calling on world leaders to visit the A-bombed city. It is hoped that they will visit the Peace Memorial Museum, listen to the survivors’ accounts, and deepen their understanding of the consequences of the bombing, which involves much more than the horror that occurred under the mushroom cloud.

Obama spends 10 minutes in peace museum

Mr. Obama spent a total of 52 minutes in the park, but only 10 of these minutes in the museum. His presence in the museum was not open to the public. The first floor of the east building of the museum, where the entrance is located, is walled with glass, but this glass was covered with screens and white sheets shortly before Mr. Obama arrived.

The president looked at more than one specially-selected artifact on the first floor of the museum. According to a museum staff member, the museum was instructed by both the U.S. and Japanese governments not to disclose the items that Mr. Obama observed, except for the paper cranes made by Sadako Sasaki. Mr. Obama then spent a few minutes writing in the museum guest book, according to the museum.

After his visit to the museum, the president delivered his “Hiroshima Speech,” which lasted 17 minutes and ran longer than expected. He stated, “We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see.” He expressed compassion for those who suffered the enormous horrors of the bombing, but he did not refer to the fact that the attack was carried out by the United States. He greeted some survivors after his speech, including Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a co-chair of a nationwide survivors’ organization, but he did not take time to listen to their experiences.

In the United States, there is deeply-rooted support for the argument that the atomic bombings were justified. Mr. Obama seemed to exert extreme caution so that his visit to Hiroshima, which was realized in the last year of his presidency, would not be construed as “apologetic diplomacy.”

To Setsuko Thurlow, Mr. Obama’s speech was “a huge disappointment.” “It was poetic and lovely, but he didn’t say anything about how we can advance nuclear disarmament,” Ms. Thurlow said from her home in Toronto on May 28. The 84-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima bombing has been actively conveying her A-bomb account in her adopted country, Canada, and other western nations. She had hoped that Mr. Obama would present some kind of new proposal to advance the speech he made in Prague in 2009.

“Still,” she added, “his visit has created the opportunity for the world to contemplate the issue of nuclear weapons.” She said that she spent a busy day giving interviews to seven media organizations from the United States and Canada.

Covered by media from 16 countries

According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was covered by 180 foreign reporters from the United States and 15 other countries. Edward-Isaac Dovere of Politico, a U.S. online media outlet, described Mr. Obama’s speech as “surprisingly powerful.” John Irvine, a correspondent for ITV News, a British broadcasting station, said the speech was profound, emphasizing the future and eliciting empathy. On the whole, reporters that were interviewed by the Chugoku Shimbun responded favorably to the president’s remarks.

After greeting the A-bomb survivors, Mr. Obama reportedly told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in the park with the president, that it was good he could come to Hiroshima and that this visit was only a beginning. While Mr. Obama is the leader of a nuclear superpower, he supports the idea of a world without nuclear weapons. However, in terms of disarmament, he has yet to indicate what steps he will take following his visit to the A-bombed city.

(Originally published on May 29, 2016)