“Hiroshima in the wake of Obama”

Here is my translation of a recent article on President Obama’s Hiroshima speech and Peace Memorial Park address, by Masaaki Murakami (村上正晃 ), a volunteer tour guide who works there. Considering Mr. Murakami is the same age as me and has, I believe, important reflections on the state of history and memory that apply to both American and Japanese readers, I decided to try to translate his words.

Here is the link to the original: http://www.huffingtonpost.jp/masaaki-murakami/obama_volunteerguide_b_10173932.html?utm_hp_ref=japan if I have made any mistakes in my translations, please feel free to let me know!



The Thoughts of a Volunteer Guide in Hiroshima, In The Wake of President Obama’s Visit

Murakami Masaaki


For the first time in history, a standing American President has set foot in Hiroshima. Regardless of what else may be said, this in itself is of great historical significance.

Disregarding what I believe to be the rights and wrongs of this visit, I’d like to write about my direct feelings and thoughts, as a volunteer tour guide in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. First, I think there is a gap in thinking when it comes to this visit. This gap exists between two wide groups: the victims of the bombing and experts, peace activists (although I don’t really like this term), and the high expectations of the citizens of Hiroshima itself.

Having had the chance to consider both sides, I’ve come to understand the emotional gap between these groups.

So, in the setting of the Peace Memorial Park speech, I think I can bridge the gap between the former group (victims, experts, peace activists etc.) and the latter (regular citizens). Because I haven’t experience the bombing or had relatives victimized by it, I think I am well suited to be objective in this task.

Regarding this gap, I would like to think about the divide between the two groups on the issue of an official apology. Listening to the former group, opinions on the issuance of an apology are divided between “It is necessary,” “It isn’t necessary,” and “While it is necessary, if it is not forthcoming, we will bear it”.

The people I spoke directly to overwhelming said “An apology is necessary”. For this group, such an apology would be for 140,000 thousand people who died in 1945, as well as the 300,000 who died from effects of the bomb up to the present day. It would be an apology for the people still alive today who have suffered many long years as a result of the bombing. And not merely that, but such an apology would be a vow that this mistake will never be repeated again, for the sake of the future, for as long as a mistake goes unrecognized, it can be repeated again.

The people who said an apology was not necessary had a different way of thinking. They said while an apology is important, it is more important to strive instead towards nuclear de-proliferation in the present. And separating the issue of whether an apology is necessary, it is not as if President Obama himself dropped the bomb, 71 years ago. In order to never use nuclear weapons again, we must think about what we can do right now, in the present. Judging from news programs, people with this way of thinking seemed to form the majority.

The last opinion, that “while an apology is necessary, if it is not forthcoming we will bear it”, perhaps best reflects the emotional turmoil of many of the bombing’s victims.

For while many victims have sought an apology in this visit, there are those who believe opinions are being changed simply by virtue of this visit. For a mere apology, if not followed by direct action towards nuclear de-proliferation, is no good. Therefore, for this visit, because the President of the United States has at least come to Hiroshima, they will bear the lack of apology. Afterwards, even if they seek no apology, they hope to show the President the pain Hiroshima has felt, and the misery endured by the bomb’s victims.

Between all these opinions, there is a common sentiment; that nuclear weapons must never be used again. This is something that must recognized immediately, without excuses or reservation. Of course, these answers to whether an apology is necessary or not are filtered through my own words, and while I have roughly divided them into groups, I cannot capture the breadth of each individual opinion fully.

But returning to said groups, what of the regular citizens of Hiroshima? Do they think an apology is necessary? When I asked this question directly and looked to Twitter and Facebook for responses, it seemed people thought an apology was not necessary. Most people figured that what was important was what could be done here and now. 71 years have passed since the bombing, and instead of looking back towards the past for an apology, I thought we should simply look to the future, and what we can do in the present.

But in fact, I feel this orientation towards the future is placing us in a present moment of crisis. I do not think this crisis has yet become an all-encompassing one, but it is critical to examine how it came to be.

When I began my job as a guide, I knew I possessed little knowledge of the bombing and history, but in reality it wasn’t just me, but my entire generation that is ignorant. This is because we never really have the chance to grapple with this history in school.

Hiroshima is often said to have an education system that actively incorporates “peace education”. And while it is true Hiroshima has peace education, this education is reserved for elementary and only sometimes middle school. By the time we reach high school and college, we have virtually no chances to study the bombing. Therefore, while we may on the surface know about the bombing, we know nothing of the historical substance of it.

But because of our peace education, we assume we do know these things, and when we become adults we don’t take the time to study history or even visit the peace park constructed in the bombing’s wake. Therefore, people who possess a truly deep historical knowledge of the bombing are few and far between. If I may be extreme, I would say we Hiroshimites are the people with the least knowledge of the bombing of all.

(To take as an metaphor, consider the Hiroshimite who at one point could recite the song about the girl who folds paper cranes for peace, and who has heard the victims of the bombing speak. But who, for lack of context, never truly comprehended these things, and as a result begins to forget them.)

This is the situation Hiroshima is presently in. Therefore, the logical conclusion I have come to is that whatever we wish to say, we do not have the knowledge to grapple with the question of an apology.

The conclusion I have come to feel in my heart is that my generations’ orientation to the future is at times a strength. We are a generation rapidly advancing towards globalization, and because we are young we still have a great deal of hidden potential. These things are also quite important.

But I do not think the future can be achieved by throwing out the past. We can only move forward by possessing knowledge of the past.

To borrow the words of my guide group leader, Mito Hironari, “The past, the present, the future, they are connected, you can’t think of them as sliced up and separated.” That is to say, to truly move forward in the present, is it not important to know the past? If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

For example, let’s say I often hit my head on the little cupboard door in my kitchen. This is because I leave the door ajar, but if I always forget that I hit my head, I will continue hitting my head time and time again. (“You’re just an idiot!” I can already hear a voice saying.) But, if I remember to close the door, I won’t repeat the mistake again. This is just one example, and maybe it’s a bit too trivial to compare to things like nuclear bombing and war, but it shows how important it is to learn from the past. This is something I learned from being a guide.

Therefore, instead of giving a simplistic answer like, “An apology for the past is not necessary for the future,” I want to think more about and learn what really happened in the past. Through this, I want my opinion to have meaning, and I want it to be connected ultimately to the future.

But to get back to the beginning, I want to write my feelings down about President Obama’s visit here.

First, although this can be seen as the first apology for the bombing, among victims of the bomb there are numerous diverging views. While there’s no doubt this a historical visit, that alone isn’t reason enough for everyone to applaud with joy. I have heard some bombing victims even say “I don’t want to see President Obama.” Yet, for most people who have waited too long for this historical visit, what mattered most was not the visit but the comments the President would make. And speaking of comments…

That was a long speech! 17 minutes in total. Yet the words used seem to me very cautiously chosen. They seemed to indicate thoughts that the President could not outright express, but which were filtered through various limitations. Yet throughout the speech, there were two things I noticed.

The first was the phrase he used from the outset, “Death falling from the sky.” (Of course, based on the translation, the nuance of this may be different.) Of course, setting aside the particularities of English, the atomic bomb was not something that simply fell from the sky. It was dropped from the sky, by Enola Gay, an American B29 bomber. The switch that was pressed to drop it was pressed by a person. Therefore, to say “death fell from the sky” is ambiguous. “People do not simply “die from” nuclear weapons, they are killed by nuclear weapons. They are killed by the people who drop those nuclear weapons.” (This is a quote I read somewhere.)

This is not limited to nuclear bombing, but war in its totality. People do not die in war, people kill and are killed in war. We cannot ever forget this basic, foundational fact of warfare. Therefore, we cannot simply conclude wars by saying things like “they cannot be helped”. In the Second World War alone, countless hundreds of thousands of lives were snatched away. Each of those lives belonged to people, with dreams and lifestyles of their own. To think of each loss individually, the scope of the tragedy becomes clear.

Instead of reflecting on war with ambiguous words, we must think about why it happened, what happened, and use this opportunity to seek a dialogue between Japan and the United States regarding their history with one another.

In reality, this is an incredible opportunity, considering how remarkably little has been said about the nuclear bombing during the long course of Japan-US postwar relations. Now, we can have the chance to clear the air around a previously untouchable subject. The former President of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker, once said: “If we are to close our eyes to the past, we will become blind to the present. That is to say, if we are to truly look to the future, we must first stare directly at our own past.

If we do this, we can truly understand one another, and find our points of mutual understanding. I hope we can seize this chance, instead of fleeing from it. This need for dialogue is not limited to the US and Japan, but rather extends to both Japan-China relations and Japan-Korea relations. Japan must also directly face its history of military aggression.

I would also like to note something positive about the President’s speech. Perhaps this is simply characteristic of President Obama himself, but he often used “we” in his speech. Of course, in saying “we”, President Obama is directly indicting himself and taking a degree responsibility for what happened. But at the same time, by using “we”, he is including all of us in the present, as actors bound up in what happened in the past.

What happened at Hiroshima was not merely his mistake, but all of our mistake. By facing the past individually, one at a time, we can truly create a positive future.

A better, positive future, by which I do not mean something airy or fluffy, but concretely a future without nuclear weapons and a future without war. If we take this as our goal, then from the outside we will be able to create it, one person at a time. For me, to talk as a guide about the bombings, and to advocate for a world without nuclear weapons cannot be separated. They are one and the same. Of course, I didn’t become a guide to advocate for a world without nuclear weapons, but only because I wanted to understand the sadness of what had happened in Hiroshima. And I will not stay a guide simply because I want a world without nuclear weapons, but rather so that I can continue to receive visitors to Hiroshima, and from the outset show them fully the reasons for my thinking. And in this way, I will naturally try to convey the importance of a world without nuclear weapons.

But of course, both are important. Expressing the pain of the bombings, advocating for nuclear de-proliferation. And of course, refusing to engage in war ever again. And finally, using the past to think about the present and the future. As of the present (January 2015), there are 15,850 nuclear weapons in the world. These nuclear weapons have a destructive power that is tens, hundreds, thousands of times greater than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And even in the present, every day countless lives are lost in violence.

So, without succumbing to an an easy satisfaction about President Obama’s mere visit, we must one by one work to learn, to think, and to convey the importance of ending nuclear weapons and war.

One person at a time, a little bit at a time.

Starting now, May 27th, 2016.

Let’s learn what’s happened, from 71 years ago to right now.
Let us tell it to the whole world.