Obama and Hiroshima

Hiroshima, Nagasaki and, to a certain extent, other parts of Japan are caught up in attempts to persuade President Barack Obama to visit one of the two A-bombed cities, as early as next month. On Thursday, the Hiroshima Peace Media Center had an excellent article that steps back and adds some important context, particularly the idea that a visit might help Japan overcome its own difficulties facing up to truths about its World War II aggression.

The center is a part of Hiroshima’s daily paper, the Chugoku Shimbun. The writer for the article interviewed a journalist who has a recent book envisioning an Obama visit to Hiroshima and articulate, charming A-bomb survivor Emiko Okada, whom I interviewed in June. As the surprise over Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize illustrated, it’s hard for Americans to grasp the sense of hope that much of the world attaches to the more cooperative foreign policy the new president has advocated. When we talked, Okada pointed to Obama’s speech in Prague setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons. “When I listened to President Obama’s speech, I was very moved,” she said. “I thought we were in a long tunnel and finally we saw light.”

Okada has traveled in many countries, including parts of Asia. She makes a point that it is important for her to talk to Asian visitors to Hiroshima about the suffering Japan caused during the war.

Rather startlingly, journalist Fumio Matsuo’s book, published in August, is called “The Day President Obama Lays a Wreath in Hiroshima.” In the Peace Media Center article, he expands on Japan’s relations wth Asia in enlightening ways. He properly contrasts Japan’s tendency to deny war responsibility with Germany. Among other things, Matsuo says, Germany worked with France on how the war is treated in textbooks, a stunning achievement compared to Japanese officials’ petulance when China and Korea criticize the dishonest accounts of history approved for schools. “We must have visits by the leaders of both Japan and the U.S. to each other’s nations to mourn the war dead and achieve reconciliation,” according to Matsuo. “And this must be linked to a historic reconciliation with the countries of Asia.”

Matsuo recognizes the political pressure that would block any apology by a U.S. president. But, like some U.S. scholars and politicians, he realizes that an apology isn’t the point; it’s the opportunity to share mutual sorrow for the tragic losses of war on all sides in a way that looks ahead to a more peaceful world. As he notes, representatives from various countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, came together in Dresden, Germany, for a 1995 ceremony commemorating the dead from a horrendous firebombing by British and American bombers.

There may be little or no chance that Obama will visit either city during a trip to Japan next month. But I think the title of Matsuo’s book, released in August, has a good chance of looking prophetic sometime soon.

Seattle-based journalist Joe Copeland visited Japan this year on a Fulbright-sponsored grant.

Copyright 2009 © Joe Copeland.

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