Atomic bomb survivors feel wonder, doubt after Obama
Hiroshima, Japan — The survivors of the world’s first atomic bomb attack are used to hearing grand vows to rid the world of nuclear weapons. They just don’t usually come directly from the leader of the country that dropped the bomb on them in the first place.
On Saturday, a day after Barack Obama left, there was gratitude — wonder, even — that he had become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the place where the nuclear age began. But there was also clear-eyed recognition that the realities of a dangerous, fickle world may trump Obama’s call for nations, including his own, to have the “the courage to escape the logic of fear” of nuclear weapons stockpiling.
Hiroshima cherishes its survivors — a grove not far from the atomic bomb’s hypocenter proudly displays signs announcing that these “A-bombed Trees” still thrive — but there’s also some skepticism when faced with yet another anti-nuclear call, even from the leader of the world’s sole superpower.
“The world paid attention to what happened here, even if just for a while, because someone as important as (Obama) came to Hiroshima. So perhaps it could make things a little bit better,” Kimie Miyamoto, 89, a bomb survivor, said in an interview. “But you never know if it will really make a difference, because so much depends on what other countries are thinking as well.”
Asked if Obama’s visit could inspire those countries to abandon nuclear weapons, she shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said, “because there are so many (bombs) in the world.”
Long after Obama left for Washington, people here were loath to let go of his whirlwind trip.
Into the night, a line at Peace Memorial Park stretched from an arched stone monument that honors the 140,000 who died from the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing to a museum that tells the stories of some of those dead, about 200 yards away. People stood patiently, inching forward and waiting for their chance to take pictures of the wreath Obama had left behind.
People around Hiroshima were still talking about their glimpses of Obama as they lined the streets to watch his motorcade speed by or watched the media coverage that documented nearly every single moment of the two hours he spent in Hiroshima in a carefully choreographed political performance meant to close old wounds without inflaming new passions.
Beneath the thrill that lingered from Obama’s star power, there was also a widespread desire to keep momentum going.
“We should not let President Obama’s Hiroshima visit be just a ceremony,” the left-leaning Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial Saturday. “He will be in office only eight more months. We hope the president will use the remaining time effectively to take concrete steps to leave a political legacy that will pave the way for a world without nuclear weapons.”
Some anti-nuclear activists worry that Obama’s Hiroshima speech could turn out like his 2009 speech in Prague that helped secure him a Nobel Peace Prize: After the buzz dies down, there will be a return to business as usual.
“The world needs more than words,” Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear group, said in a statement. “President Obama must take urgent action to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons being used again.”
In an interview at the retirement home she shares with other bomb victims, Tsuyako Hiramatsu, 90, flipped through the pages of a book with a photograph of smiling young World War II pilots holding a puppy on its cover.
She marveled at Obama’s political and military power, but said she had seen too many Japanese leaders who have said one thing in public and another in private to believe that there will ever be a world without war.
Since Obama received the Nobel for his anti-nuclear agenda, he has seen uneven progress and criticism over plans for a big, costly program to upgrade U.S. nuclear stockpiles.
Another bomb survivor, Michiko Kimoto, 87, also had doubts that Obama’s visit would ever lead to a world without nuclear weapons. “You can never tell how people’s minds work,” she said.
One of the two survivors who met directly with Obama, 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, was more optimistic.
Tsuboi, like some other survivors, thought Obama had spent too little time in Hiroshima to fully understand the extent of the tragedy. But Obama’s presidency, he told reporters, has pushed the world “a step or two forward” to the goal of nuclear disarmament.
“I think he has the strong leadership abilities to make it happen,” he said.