As an American who was raised in postwar Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, I applaud President Obama for his decision to become, later this month, the first serving US president to visit Hiroshima. But I cringe every time I hear voices still defending the horrific nuclear attacks on that city on August 6, 1945, and three days later in Nagasaki.
Moreover, I deeply regret that Obama’s visit could lend prestige to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He leads a right-wing faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that is trying to weaken Japan’s Peace Constitution and allow Japanese soldiers to take part in military operations overseas for the first time since World War II.
Obama’s historic, and long-expected, visit to Hiroshima was announced Tuesday morning by the White House, which assured potential critics that he would not “apologize” to Japan. “[Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” Benjamin Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, wrote in a blog post. Instead, Obama will “shine a spotlight on the tremendous and devastating human toll of war.”
Devastating it was. I lived in Tokyo for most of my youth, after arriving with my missionary parents in 1952. Throughout my childhood, the horrors of World War II were always present. In the 1950s, movies in Japan began not with news clips from overseas but with films of the brave firefighters who tried, valiantly, to extinguish the flames in the horrific firebombing of Tokyo in the spring of 1945. One of the first houses my family lived in replaced a foreign residence destroyed in the bombing; the cement fireplace in our backyard was all that was left of the old house.
Later, as a kid living on the campus of a university in Tokyo that had once been a Japanese aircraft factory, I discovered caves dug into the nearby hills by people hiding from the bombs. With my fellow faculty kids, we raced our bikes through the bombed-out remains of a hangar for warplanes. Hundreds of thousands of Tokyo’s citizens, mostly the poor and working class, had died in those attacks. And from my dad, who first came to Japan in 1947, I heard firsthand stories of the horrors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he visited several times. The idea of radiation sickness, which continued to kill thousands of victims for decades, terrified me.
The idea that the atomic bombings brought an end to war has always seemed ridiculous to me. By the summer of 1945, Tokyo and dozens of other cities had been obliterated. People throughout the country were, literally, starving amid the ruins, and any national pride and hopes for the future were long gone. My stepmother, Yasuko, survived the war in Kokubunji, a western suburb of Tokyo, where her preacher father had a church. She and her teenage brother were so weakened by hunger by the war’s end that they used to grab onto telephone poles to steady themselves while they were walking.