On Friday, May 27th, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima after the US dropped the bomb there nearly 71 years ago. In his speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, he called for a “moral revolution” and a world free from the threat of nuclear warfare. He mentioned the surviving victims of the nuclear bombs, using the Japanese word for them – hibakusha.
“Someday, the voices of the Hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of August 6th, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.”
President Obama`s full remarks may be viewed here.
Hibakusha (被爆者) translates to “bomb-affected-people,” or “bombed people” and, in particular, is a word used to describe survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They are officially recognized by the Japanese government and include people who were still in their mothers’ wombs at the time of the bombings.
In addition to suffering ill health due to radiation, many hibakusha have faced discrimination over the years. Little was known about radiation at the time the bombs were dropped, and many treated the survivors as though they had an infectious disease, which barred them from work and societal belonging.
In 1956, the hibakusha created the Nihon Hidankyo (日本被団協, The Japan Confederation of A and H Bomb Sufferers). Thanks to the activism of this group, the Japanese government was made to offer financial and medical assistance to officially recognized survivors. In addition to this advocacy work, the Nihon Hidankyo continues to press for the abolition of nuclear arms. In anticipation of Obama’s visit to Japan, they released an open letter urging him to honor his vow to work towards making the world free of nuclear weapons.
While neither the Nihon Hidankyo nor the Japanese government officially asked for one, controversy remains as to whether or not an official apology should be made to the victims of the atomic bombs. However, many feel that the tribute the president paid and the warmth he showed to the hibakusha during his visit go a long way towards healing emotional wounds and strengthening the ties between Japan and the US.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (平和記念公園, Heiwa Kinen Koen), where President Obama gave his speech, is free and open year-round. Formerly the commercial and political center of Hiroshima, the park includes various icons, including the A-Bomb Dome, The Children’s Peace Monument, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, all within walking distance of each other. Every August 6th, a Peace Memorial Ceremony is held in front of the Memorial Cenotaph starting at around 8 am. Visiting these places is a very sobering experience, but, much like Obama’s speech, not without hope.