What Obama's Overdue Hiroshima Visit Means To Me

Recently I was asked how I, as a person of Japanese descent, feel about President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Japan on May 27. After clicking through preview articles, political analyses, and video interviews, I came to one primary conclusion.

I am confused.

I should preface the rest of this by saying that I am not, by a long shot, among those closely affected by the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though I grew up with pretty constant exposure to Japanese culture — thanks to the enthusiasm of my parents and paternal grandparents — I am only one-quarter Japanese, and I therefore often pass as white and benefit almost entirely from white privilege. The Japanese portion of my family comes from Okinawa, a tiny island nearly 800 miles from Hiroshima’s location in mainland Japan and nearly 700 miles from Nagasaki. My immediate relatives had, in fact, already immigrated to the United States by the time the bombs fell in 1945.

Of course, this distance does not signify that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean nothing to me. I still learned about the event earlier than is probably typical for American children. As a kid, I read Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a historical fiction children’s book detailing the experience of Sadako, a young girl from Hiroshima who eventually dies of leukemia as an aftereffect of the bomb. While I learned about the tragedies at a young age, my distance from the experience means that I do not feel the pain of those whose relatives fell victim to the atomic bombs or who survived the attacks themselves.

More than anything, the discussion surrounding this issue reminds me again how strange it is to have relatives whose nationality has been historically demonized by U.S. popular culture.

That said, my early education on this issue, coupled with learning about the Japanese Internment that threatened my grandmother's family, perhaps allowed me to empathize more with those painted as the "enemy" when I later learned about World War II in my history classes.

Because of this geographical and generational distance, I at first felt wary about commenting on Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. As I read through pre-coverage, however, I found several points worth questioning regarding this supposedly momentous occasion. I hadn’t realized — perhaps because I had never really considered — that Obama, the 11th president since Harry Truman, would be the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima post-bombing.

I can’t quite say I was shocked by this, or even surprised, really, but I was disappointed, given that I consider Obama’s visit long overdue. Of course, I am not idealistic or naive enough to think that nations frequently send their leaders to the places where they have committed such acts, but taking into consideration the scale of the bombings — with 120,000 dead upon detonation and tens of thousands more dying later due to radiation-induced complications — and the generally amicable relationship currently sustained between the U.S. and Japan, I thought it would have been plausible for a previous U.S. president to have gone.

I also discovered that most pre-coverage of Obama’s groundbreaking visit fixates on one question: should Obama apologize? While I would not, as previously established, be the rightful or intended recipient of said apology, my initial response was that no, he shouldn’t. To do so, in my eyes, would be pointless. The simple truth is that no one blames Obama for two bombings that occurred before he was born, and an apology for the decision another president made a generation ago would, to me at least, look like an empty gesture. I, of course, think that Obama should recognize the destruction that his country caused, but I do not think that he should apologize for it.

At first, I thought that news sources agreed with me. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today all affirm that Obama has no intention to apologize, and none dare to suggest that he do otherwise. The Chicago Tribune notes that no previous commanders-in-chief have gone to Hiroshima “out of concern that such a trip might be interpreted as an apology,” and the New York Times comments that “Mr. Obama’s decision to visit the memorial seems well overdue.” I realized, however, that beyond the visit’s timing alone, the popular American aversion to an apology stems from a perspective very different than my own. USA Today’s Kirk Spitzer claims, “while polls show that most Japanese do not expect Obama to explicitly apologize for the bombing, many Japanese are likely to interpret his mere visit as an apology.”

To me, this perspective paints Japanese people as a population itching to be victimized. It provides no evidence to back up why or how Spitzer knows that “many Japanese” will interpret the visit as an apology. Furthermore, Spitzer adds that “The Hiroshima museum does not expressly blame or criticize the Americans for using the atomic bomb. But its hundreds of chilling exhibits and poignant artifacts include little or no mention of Japan’s participation in World War II.” Combined, I interpreted these comments as painting an unsubstantiated and negative picture of Japan as a whole. In my eyes, this negative portrayal serves to divide rather than unite the formerly adversarial countries, which will only hinder Obama’s official goal of pursuing a future free of nuclear weapons.

I recognize that Japanese history is far from squeaky-clean. Japan was an imperial superpower that performed ethnic cleansing of Chinese people during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and it was an active member of World War II’s axis powers. That does not, however, mean that those killed by the atomic bombs should not be honored and remembered. Those deaths should be taken as a reminder of the tragedies that can happen in war, and in a world where nuclear weaponry is at hand.

Additionally, U.S. nationalistic criticisms of Obama’s visit and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum — which, as its full name implies, intends to promote peace and remembrance — appear entirely hypocritical to me. Spitzer also notes, for example, that “American veterans groups have urged Obama not to visit Hiroshima until the Japanese apologize for the wartime treatment of American prisoners of war, thousands of whom died of abuse and starvation in Japanese prison camps.” While the treatment of POW should not go unrecognized, abusive prison camps were not unique to the Japanese. We should remember that during World War II, roughly 120,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry were interned in concentration camps simply because of their heritage.

Neither the U.S. nor Japan was purely the victim during World War II, and I think that is important to remember. As Obama’s visit to Hiroshima approaches, Japanese people as a whole should neither be pitied nor vilified, because to do either would require an entirely one-dimensional perspective. At this point, more than 70 years since the war's end, I think that a flat apology from either side would prove devoid of meaning or progress. Instead, Obama's anticipated focus on a world without nuclear weapons should be prioritized and advocated.

More than anything, the discussion surrounding this issue reminds me again how strange it is to have relatives whose nationality has been historically demonized by U.S. popular culture. When I think of Japanese people, I think first of a collection of great aunts, uncles, cousins, my grandmother, and my dad. I do not think of the terrifying, nebulous enemy with a unified purpose for destroying the United States about which we may have learned in world history classes.

Just as I know that modern day Japanese people are not imperialist warmongers, I know that today's U.S. citizens largely do not view them as such. While I do not see any effective purpose behind a potential apology from Obama, I do think Japan's losses to be recognized for what they were: a great tragedy in a time of war.

Images: Maia Hibett