INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Obama’s Hiroshima Visit — Symbolism and Substance



After more than seven decades since the end of World War II, it is now official: President Obama will later this month become the first sitting American president to visit the city of Hiroshima, Japan, upon which the United States military dropped the first of two genshi bakudan.

That bomb, and the one that similarly devastated the city of Nagasaki three days later on Aug. 9, 1945, flattened Hiroshima, killing and wounding thousands. Hibakusha — those who survived — would carry physical and psychic scars for the rest of their lives.

There are those who, accurately, point out that the U.S. military’s firebombing of Tokyo (that a Japanese American named Ben Kuroki participated in) killed more people and caused more damage than either “Little Boy” or “Fat Man,” as the two atom bombs were nicknamed. The atom bomb was, however, a game-changer in humankind’s ignoble history of warfare. Instead of hundreds of bombing raids over several months, a mere two weapons were able to bring down two cities in a matter of seconds.

The president’s decision to visit Hiroshima was foreshadowed and anticipated by the April 11 visit by Secretary of State John Kerry. He called his visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial “gut-wrenching.” As anyone who has made the visit to Hiroshima’s memorial can attest, that is an accurate depiction.

Kerry is, for now, the highest sitting U.S. administration official to visit the site. While that is significant, as president, Obama’s upcoming visit carries much more weight.

The visit also opens up Obama to his critics, who have consistently accused him of being an apologist for past actions by the United States or weak for leading from behind or putting forth an indifferent and indecisive image of our country to other world leaders. Obama can and should, of course, be open to criticism for specific acts (or lack of actions) he has taken during with two terms in office.

In this case, however, I don’t and won’t buy into it. First of all, Obama is not planning to apologize, and no apology is necessary, horrific as the acts were. It was a war, after all, and the intended effect was achieved: ending the war with Japan and preventing a prolonged invasion and siege of the mainland that would have likely taken millions more human lives. Furthermore, I have no doubts that had the Japanese or the Germans developed the A-bomb first, they would have used it against us.

With his second-term as POTUS entering its final months, Obama is in that twilight time when he can actually take actions with symbolism and substance without worrying how they will hurt him politically. President Reagan did it when he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. President Clinton did it in 2000 when he awarded Medals of Honor to Asian Pacific American servicemen who had been passed over for that decoration.

For Obama, being the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima falls under those circumstances. He’s going to Japan anyway for the Group of Seven summit in Ise, so why not visit? It’s also a testament to today’s friendship and alliance between the United States and Japan that while we can never forget the past, we are obliged to move forward together.

Yes, we are the one nation in the world to have used nuclear weapons. But more importantly, knowing what an abomination nukes are, we haven’t used them since, despite the many temptations to do so. Obama’s visit will, according to news reports, emphasize the need to build a future where nuclear weapons cease to exist. That’s vital, and it’s why important actors without a conscience, whether we’re talking North Korea, Iran or Islamic State terrorists, are denied by us and our allies the chance to build or obtain nuclear weapons.

If that message can be delivered via a first visit by a sitting president of the United States to the site where we did a terrible thing, that’s a silver lining to the mushroom cloud. Let’s hope Obama is not also the last sitting American president to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Originally built as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the structure now called the Atomic Dome remained after the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing. The postwar municipal government of Hiroshima meant to have it demolished, but a campaign led by a group of high school students convinced many that it should be preserved as a monument to peace and as a reminder of  the horrors of war. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Originally built as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the structure now called the Atomic Dome remained after the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing. The postwar municipal government of Hiroshima meant to have it demolished, but a campaign led by a group of high school students convinced many that it should be preserved as a monument to peace and as a reminder of the horrors of war. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Calling All Columnists Dept.: With The Los Angeles Times’ April 30 report by Samantha Masunaga on the possible demise of this newspaper unless drastic steps are achieved, that news is now official. (See it at OK, I’m being facetious — it was a good article and getting coverage by L.A.’s 400-pound gorilla of print journalism (it used to be 800 pounds but it’s had its own troubles) is a good thing. All those Japanese Americans who don’t subscribe to The Rafu Shimpo but still see The Times now know the woes this paper is facing.

So, beyond a push for e-newspaper subscriptions, what concrete steps to improve the status quo have been taken? Well, while I’m not privy to everything going on behind the scenes, I do know that we’re quickly closing in on summer, which means Obons galore and events like the Venice Japanese Community Center’s Summer Festival on June 26 and 27, the Starry Night in Little Tokyo: LTSC’s 10th Annual Sake & Food Tasting Event on July 29, the Los Angeles Dodgers Japanese Heritage Night on July 26 and, of course, Nisei Week.

To gain subscribers (not just e-newspapers but the print newspaper, too), The Rafu Shimpo needs to represent at as many of these events as possible, whether it’s a booth or a stand or just a shout-out over the public address system.

To that end, I want to reach out to my fellow Rafu Shimpo columnists to write me via the email below to meet and strategize and lead any potential volunteers (please write me too!) and attend as many of these events as possible in the coming months to have a presence and sign up subscribers. (Why columnists and not full-time Rafu staffers? They’re busy putting out the paper!)

We’ll need to identify which events to attend, when they take place, divide up shifts and see who can be there to lead at a given event, set up a method to accept credit card payments as well as cash and checks, reach out to the events’ coordinators and see if we can get a waiver on fees for a booth, etc.

If you’re a Rafu Shimpo columnist, please write me at the email address below. If you’re on the planning committee for an Obon or other event, please write me with when your event is and what access we can get. If you’d like to help as a volunteer, also please write me.

In the meantime, I’ll see about setting up a time and place to meet.

We can’t afford to let any opportunities go by. It’s nice to talk about keeping this paper alive, but now it’s time to act. Attending community events and getting subscribers is something that can be done. Hope to hear from you soon.

Apology Dept.: So, while President Obama isn’t going to apologize, without mentioning any names, I’m going to publicly apologize to someone from Kizuna I consider a friend, whom I awkwardly put on the spot. Thanks to an invitation from a Rafu staffer, I was privileged to attend the Kizuna fifth anniversary dinner and sit at the Rafu Shimpo table, which I presume the paper paid for. (The paper also ran a full-page article prior to the event, with a full-page advertisement on the facing page on April 19, both of which I’m sure helped helped the event get as many attendees as it did. Rafu Shimpo also provided post-event coverage in the May 11 issue.)

Before the show, which was fun, energetic and well-produced, wound down, it occurred to me that this event was a great venue to put in a brief word from one of The Rafu Shimpo’s staffers to remind the mostly Japanese American crowd that while one community organization was celebrating its fifth birthday, another 113-year-old community institution was facing an uncertain future, possibly its demise.

I approached this individual from Kizuna to make the request. Said person answered that it was necessary to confer with a couple of other Kizuna leaders first. The answer was “no.” The reason was it wasn’t planned and that the venue wanted to make sure the event didn’t go over its allotted time for fun videos, witty banter and thoughts about the future of the Japanese American community.

So, I am sorry for making such a request. I also hope that The Rafu Shimpo will be there to report the story when Kizuna has its 10th anniversary.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.



Leave A Reply