Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Obama in Hiroshima: Arriving to unsettled debate, lingering memories

Jayanth Jacob, Hindustan Times, Tokyo/Ise-Shima

Image from article, with caption: Visitors of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial park stand in front of the Peace Memorial Genbaku Dome in Naka Ward, Hiroshima Prefecture on Wednesday.

The average age of hibakusha, the Japanese term for certified atomic bomb survivors, is 80. Seventy -one years after an American B 29 Superfortress bomber dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, a serving US president will be visiting the city of lingering memories of untold miseries for the first time.

The build-up to the visit on Friday by President Barack Obama, a Nobel peace laureate, also proves that the atomic bombing remains still a raging debate in both countries.

Japanese officials are as much guarded as their American counterparts on the question that many await an answer for: will Obama apologise for the attack? “It is a futuristic visit,” said Masato Otaka, deputy director general of press and public diplomacy at Japan’s ministry of foreign affairs.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who would be accompanying Obama to Hiroshima, has already put the visit in context. “Japan is the only country to be hit by a nuclear weapon, and we have a responsibility to make sure that the terrible experience is never repeated anywhere.”

But the interest the visit has generated across Japan reflects many things. It amply shows the struggle of collective remembrance against forgetting in Japan, and how the people in Japan and the US, closest of allies, remain split over the use of atomic bomb in 1945.

A project to pass on memories of the atomic attack, which killed 140,00 people in 1945, has the traits of a mass movement in Japan. Hiroshima city is training youngsters to become “successors” to the experiences of the hibakusha, spending time with them, as many as three years to soak in their stories and narrate them to future generations.

The High School Peace Ambassador project in Hiroshima and all across Japan have students collect signatures and bring them to the UN to ask for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The stories of survivors of nuclear attacks, part of the project, brings alive the trauma they went through in chilling detail. In one of such recent projects, Tsuboi, who was 20 years old at the time of attack narrates the experience in great detail. He was on his way to school at Hiroshima Technical School (the present-day Hiroshima University Faculty of Engineering), and was just one kilometre away from Ground Zero when the bomb was dropped. He was in a coma for 40 days, and even after waking up, it was a year until he could stand. Even after the war, he was treated for ailments including multiple cancers caused by radiation from the bomb.

But the atomic bomb attack remains a matter of intense debate. Historians like Akira Yamada, at Tokyo’s Meiji university stresses that both Japan and the US do not wish to put the focus on facts that are inconvenient to them. Many in the US believe that the bomb that signalled the end of the second world war saved many lives from being perished, had the conventional war persisted. The Japan Times pointed out in a report on Tuesday that the approval rating in the US for the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been on the decline in the US. A Gallup poll in 1945 had found 85% people in the US approved the attack, and the figure came down to 63% in a Detroit Free Press Survey in 1991 and further down to 56% according to a Pew Research Survey in 2015.

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