Obama Visits Hiroshima, Which Symbolizes Atomic Age Horrors

May 27, 2016
Originally published on May 27, 2016 9:36 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama spoke this morning at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. He is the first sitting U.S. president to visit that city since the U.S. bombed it in 1945. That was the first atomic bomb attack.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. And they ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, three days later, the United States attacked another Japanese city, Nagasaki. But Hiroshima remains the city that most symbolizes the horrors of the atomic age. About 140,000 people were killed when that bomb was dropped.

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OBAMA: That is why we come to Hiroshima, so that we might think of people we love, the first smile from our children in the morning, the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table, the comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here 71 years ago.

GREENE: That is President Obama speaking a bit earlier this morning in Hiroshima, Japan. Joining us on the line, NPR's Elise Hu who is our international correspondent who covers Asia. She is with the president in Hiroshima. And Elise, I just - I've - I don't remember a speech that sort of with those long pauses and just absolute silence behind the president of the United States. I mean, what was it like there?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Yeah, David, the mood on the actual lawn was incredibly somber. The tone of the speech though did try and look forward. I just spoke with a former Japanese newspaper publisher who said he was incredibly moved, that it seemed like the president was speaking directly to the people who were here in Hiroshima that day, especially with references to the children in the speech. He made a reference to children who screamed without a voice, children who were confused by what they saw. I saw a lot of tears welling up in people's eyes. A lot of regular Japanese quite moved by the speech, not only by President Obama but also the speech following by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.

GREENE: Yes, but we should say, I mean, people who were children at that point are some of the survivors who are still here today. So in many ways the president could be speaking directly to them.

HU: That's right, there were survivors in the audience. And President Obama did take time to speak to two of them following his speech. It is quite moving because many of us learned of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in history books. But when you see these survivors sort of wheeled up and right among you, it's a reminder that, you know, this wasn't so long ago, that people who were actually here that day and saw the mushroom cloud and were confused by what they saw, just as President Obama described, are still living and among us.

GREENE: OK, that's NPR's Elise Hu, who covers Asia for us at NPR and covered the president's speech in Hiroshima. I want to turn now to two guests we have in the studio. Sheila Smith is an expert in Japanese politics and foreign policy and is senior fellow at the the Council on Foreign Relations. And NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is here as well. Good morning to you both.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

SHEILA SMITH: Good morning.

GREENE: Sheila, let me begin with you. The president, in the speech mentioned 60 million people who died. So he - there not just speaking about Japanese victims, I mean, in this bombing but, I mean, thinking about an entire war in a larger context. Was that important?

SMITH: I think it was. I think what he was trying to do here is remind us of the expanse that was World War II and the catastrophe that was World War II that was culminated in the dropping of the bombs. He referenced, you know, people who were shot, beaten, marched, starved. And he referenced also the commemorations in other sites of the horror of that war. Clearly then also speaking to behavior of Japanese - right? - across Asia. He wanted I think to contextualize Hiroshima not just as a Japanese site but as a universal site for all of us.

GREENE: And I guess there was some criticism from around Asia worrying that this would allow Japan to sort of move on and forget sort of the horrors that they carried out during the war. And I guess that it's speaking to that as well.

SMITH: Exactly. And South Korean's in particular were anxious that this not being seen as a site only that belonged to the Japanese. And of course he mentioned that there were Koreans - many of which have been forcibly brought to Japan - but Koreans who were in Hiroshima on that day as well.

GREENE: Scott Horsley, let me bring you in here. This is a president who has faced criticism from some who have suggested that he can be an apologist for U.S. foreign policy. This is a moment when a lot of people are wondering would there be some kind of apology here. I mean, put this speech a bit into political context if you can.

HORSLEY: Well, the White House was acutely aware of that, and they let us know as soon as this trip was announced that there would not be a formal or informal apology from the president here. In fact, the old trope that he conducted apology tours I think has been pretty widely discredited in general. At the same time, he wanted to draw the connection between the people that died at Hiroshima, the people that died elsewhere in World War II and the people that have died in all the wars before and since.

You know, he was hoping to sort of energize his campaign against nuclear weapons with this visit. But he spoke more broadly about needing to rethink our concept of war itself.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking to NPR's Scott Horsley and with Sheila Smith, thank you both so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And in a minute we're going to speak to a survivor of the attack. First though, we want to introduce a guest in our studio, Congressman Mark Takano. We have been hearing from him during the show. He is from California, Japanese-American. His grandparents and parents were both put into internment camps during World War II. He has been strongly supported - supportive of the president's visit. Thank you for joining us and coming into our studio.

MARK TAKANO: Well, thank you for having me. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. And so, you know, as I said, your own parents suffered in their own way here in America. But obviously, your cousin suffered far more greatly.

TAKANO: Well, yes. Interestingly enough, my cousin Kikue Takagi was about 12 or 13 at the time. She lived on the outskirts of the city. And most of her classmates were at the city center - ground center - the ground zero, and they were cleaning up the demolition debris as many of those middle schools students were doing. And you'll see a memorial to middle school students and middle school teachers at the Peace Museum. But her mother kept her home 'cause she'd been sick.

And when I visited her in 2002, she had never been to the Peace Museum. And I didn't know that she was a survivor. My family kept a distance from Japan. And I, at age 41 was my first visit and my parents had never been to Japan. We were very much conscious of how our Americanism had been questioned.

MONTAGNE: Right. Well, we have her, of course, as you know, we have her on the phone right now, your second cousin who survived the attack in Hiroshima. Again, it's Kikue Takagi. And good morning - you're there in Hiroshima, 83 years old, I gather.

KIKUE TAKAGI: Yes. I am.

MONTAGNE: And so you were a little girl, a young girl, sick from school. Tell us - I'm not even sure almost how to ask this, but what do you remember of that moment and that day?

TAKAGI: Oh, you ask me about...

MONTAGNE: The moment of the attack.

TAKAGI: Oh, I saw very, very bright lightning coming through our house. And then, you know, in Japan house made most material wood and (unintelligible). So big, strong wind blow away window and the door. So my husband (unintelligible) but very, very messy that time.

MONTAGNE: It actually withstood the - withstood the bomb.

TAKAGI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And...

TAKANO: You should understand Kikue lived in the outer ring of the city so not at the city center.

TAKAGI: Not city - center of city but very close, maybe 2 and a half mile away from Peace Park.

MONTAGNE: And your classmates?

TAKAGI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You lost...

TAKAGI: All - most - I think only my class survivors only few friend.

MONTAGNE: Right.

TAKAGI: All other ones instantly killed because they walk outside.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, I am - we - that is a sad and terrible story that time you lived through. We really appreciate you talking to us. From Hiroshima, Kikue Takagi and also your cousin here in America Congressman Mark Takano...

TAKAGI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...Speaking about that day in Hiroshima 71 years ago, the first time that the - an atomic bomb was dropped on any city. And we're remembering it today with President Obama's visit to Hiroshima. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.