Photograph by Popperfoto, Getty Images
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An Allied correspondent looks at the rubble of a cinema after the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. The dome in the background has been preserved as a memorial.

Photograph by Popperfoto, Getty Images

Hiroshima Survivors Have a Message for Obama

As the first sitting U.S. president visits the city, survivors of the atomic bomb blast aren’t asking for an apology.

HIROSHIMA, Japan—Yoshie Oka was 14 when the atomic bomb hit. She was working in a bunker here, at a call station for the military. She was due for a shift change, but the girl who was supposed to relieve her from duty was being chastised by a teacher for not paying attention in the morning drill, and was running late for work.

At 8:12 in the morning, Oka’s station detected the Enola Gay directly over the city. She waited for her station manager to authorize the air raid warning, but by the time that happened it, it was too late. The bomb hit at about 8:15.

Even behind two thick walls of reinforced concrete, Oka was thrown back by the blast and knocked out. When she awoke moments later, she went outside into the fog and asked a wounded soldier what had happened. Then she went back to the bunker, found a working phone, and gave the world’s first report of Hiroshima. Repeating the soldier’s words, she told the call center in Fukuyama, “A new type of bomb was dropped.”

“I shouldn't be alive,” Oka says. But now, at age 84, she’s one of a handful of survivors—called Hibakusha in Japanese—who will live to see the first visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president.

The plans for President Barack Obama’s visit have been highly guarded and heavily scrutinized, especially in light of the news that Obama will not apologize for his country’s use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But an apology isn’t what Oka and several other Hibakusha want from the president.  

“It took me years after the war to overcome my feelings of anger toward the war,” Oka says. “I saw horrific things that day, so many dead bodies, so much destruction that I had to escape, but I was trained by the military, even if I was a young girl. That's the war we were fighting. So much has changed since then. I really hope he uses this chance to learn from us, to stare at us in the eyes, and understand the reality of what happened here.”

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 instantly killed thousands of people and eventually lead to about 146,000 deaths. In discussing President Harry Truman’s decision to use the bombs to hasten the end of World War II, President Obama told a Japanese broadcaster that all leaders must make difficult decisions.

And those decisions often have difficult consequences.

“We have suffered,” says Takeshi Miyata who was five when he survived the bombing of Nagasaki. “We still suffer the aftereffects of the bomb to this day. However, a Japanese proverb reminds me that to be open-minded, you must drink both the pure and the muddy water together.”

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Survivor Yoshie Oka stands in the bunker she worked in during the bombing. 

It’s expected Obama will use his time in Hiroshima to discuss how a lasting peace and partnership grew between the U.S. and Japan after the war, and possibly to address his goals of nuclear disarmament. Some in Hiroshima and Nagasaki think Obama hasn't done enough for the cause since a speech he made in Prague in 2009 in which he outlined steps that could bring an end to nuclear arms. Some others here think his visit is purely symbolic and will not come with any lasting change. And still others are truly relieved at the milestone of a U.S. president arriving in a city the holder of his same office decided to destroy 71 years earlier. While feelings among the Hibakusha are mixed, the desire for a world without nuclear weapons remains the same.

“I want to know, what can he do to make sure what happened to me never happens to anyone else again?” says Keiko Ogura, who was eight when she survived the attack on Hiroshima. “By coming here, Obama has given an example to the world of how we should behave, and how we can improve relationships so that eventually nuclear weapons can be eliminated entirely.”

 “It has taken time for the U.S. president to come to Hiroshima but I would like to appreciate the fact that he is coming,” says Tanaka Shigemitsu, director of the Nagasaki Survivors Association.

For Shigemitsu, though, a call for nuclear disarmament would mean even more if it came with specifics.

“I expect him to state an action plan for the nuclear abolition, something more significant than what he said in Prague,” Shigemitsu says. “Hiroshima was the first city to be attacked and Nagasaki should be the last place to experience an atomic bombing.”

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, The Nuclear Family, focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.