Holding the Ashen Bark: Voices from Hiroshima on the Historic Visit by President Obama

Ayako Matsushita



“Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?” President Obama asked himself and the world in his historic speech on May 27th, 2016. I too, ask myself why I’ve been to Hiroshima over and over, and why I took the chance to witness this historic visit by the sitting US president.

Emiko Okada, a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor), asked me the same question when I interviewed her: “You are from Tokyo, which must have everything, unlike Hiroshima. You have a job and you’re young. In this peaceful country, you can travel around and enjoy hot springs or local food, as you wish. Why did you choose to come to Hiroshima? This is not a place for fun. You can’t just come here and go home with a souvenir. I think you are looking for something different from Hiroshima, aren’t you?”

When I was asked why, I remembered the moment when I saw the picture of my great uncle, Kazuo Sakamaki, who was the first Japanese POW of WWII. In the photo, he looked cheerful as a prisoner, but there were black spots on each of his cheeks. The caption said he had pressed burning cigarettes on himself as punishment. I shivered within, thinking about how the nature of war affects people.

My first visit to Hiroshima was in 2011. I wanted to visit Etajima Island, where ten naval boys including my great uncle stayed for last-minute secret training before the Pearl Harbor attack. Since then, I’ve been to Hiroshima once or twice a year, even just for a prayer at the Peace Monument. I have been trying to understand the strange nature of war.

During my stay in Hiroshima this time, I tried to immerse myself in the great enthusiasm of the people who came to welcome President Obama. I also talked with hibakusha, bereaved families, and volunteer guides. Some hibakusha allowed me to talk on the phone with them before my visit. Sometimes for over an hour, they explained their mixed feelings. However, at the end of our conversations, I was always asked to talk with several people to get different perspectives.

On the train to Hiroshima, in my mind, I was already walking in the Peace Memorial Park and talking to some hibakusha, asking them things like, “How do you feel to be here today?” “Can you tell me what you think about President Obama’s visit?” “Did you ever hope for his visit?” “Do you think the president will apologize to the hibakusha?” and so on. Their answers were always either angry or happy. The major Japanese newspapers said that President Obama would visit both the Peace Museum and the Peace monument, but would give some “sentiments,” not an official speech. I thought his visit would end in great disappointment.

Obama in Hiroshima

Historic Visit by President Obama

May 27th, 2016

I started my day by walking in the park without bothering anyone. By 9 o’clock, the park was full of people; Japanese, American, German, Korean, Spanish, young and old. Reporters from all over the world gathered around the Peace Monument and the Atomic Bomb Dome, eager to interview hibakusha and ask for their comments, even before they could pray. I wondered how many reporters put their palms together in front of the cenotaph that morning. The park was vibrant, waiting to welcome the president.

The first person I talked to was a man from Nara prefecture who was visiting Hiroshima with his wife, just to welcome President Obama. He told me; “I worked in Hiroshima for eight years and I just could not stay at home, watching it on TV. I want to welcome President Obama and stay here to feel his presence as much as I can.” I was surprised by his pure enthusiasm and soon learned this city was totally different from any other parts of the world.

An American veteran who had served in the Vietnam War was taking pictures in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome with his Japanese wife. This was his second visit to Hiroshima. “It means a lot to me to be here today. We could have used nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and now almost 10 countries have them. Hiroshima has become the symbol of world peace and I think it’s important to be here today.”

As I walked around the park, I saw groups of elementary and junior high school students. They were putting a thousand paper cranes by the Children’s Peace Monument. They never stopped until the park was closed for security at noon.

The anticipation and the enthusiasm toward the president’s visit reached its peak around 3 p.m.
So many citizens were standing in the strong afternoon sun on the main street. I took a walk for several blocks around the park, and realized there was no way to get a closer view of the president. I found a spot where I could see the park’s main entrance, where his car would enter.

A boy tried to climb a roadside tree for a better view. As his mother made him come down, I thought, “Why should he?” I was curious about how he would recall this day when he grew older.

In the crowd, people talked to each other. A woman who was standing next to me was from Yamaguchi prefecture. She was with her mother and friend, and told me they left home early in the morning.

Along the main street, Peace Avenue, both Japanese and American flags had been raised.

The president arrived at the park around 5:30 p.m. Shortly after visiting the museum, he gave a speech, about 17 minutes long, in front of some hibakusha and the press. We were all quiet during his visit, listening to the radio or watching the live stream on our smartphones. As the president was leaving, somebody screamed “Come back again!” and started to clap their hands.


What Happened on August 6th, 1945

An interview with Emiko Okada

The following day I met Emiko Okada, a hibakusha, in the lobby of the Peace Museum. She was 8 years old when the A-bomb was dropped. She has now turned 79.

What was your first reaction to the news of President Obama’s visitation?
I was so happy when I heard the news. It must have taken so much courage for him to plan the visit. We hibakusha were waiting for his visit for a long time. I wrote letters to several prime ministers around the world in 2008, and asked them to visit Hiroshima during their stay when attending the Toyako Summit. I received replies from several countries, including the US. Nobody could come over then, but all the replies encouraged me a little.

What did you think about his visit and speech?
Though he spent only ten minutes in the museum, he must have seen the victims’ burned clothes or a lunch box.* Each article teaches us that victims had their own names, lives, and dreams. The president took his time giving his speech, and the words he spoke were simple and strong. When I saw the way he bowed his head at the peace monument, I knew he was apologizing to the victims. When I saw him smiling as he spoke with Mr. Tsuboi (Chairperson of Japan Confederation of A-bomb and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations), and saw his white teeth, I thought he had warmth.

[*Later a guide at the Peace Museum told me that President Obama saw the tricycle of a boy who died at age four. In his speech he used the word “child” and “children” eight times.]

Can you tell me what happened on August 6th, 1945?
It was a hot summer morning. An air-raid warning had been cleared, so my sister left home for a building removal site. She was just twelve, an ordinary girl who was dreaming about her life in middle school. She went out and never returned. We could only put her name on the gravestone.

I was having breakfast with my mother and younger brother when I heard the airplane flying over. The airplane was shining silver and it looked so beautiful. The next moment I was blown away. Fire started somewhere and I ran for my life. As I escaped from the fire rolling towards me, I saw so many people calling their mothers’ names and pleading for help; some were dead and some were hobbling, arms raised in the air. Now we can see dolls representing hibakusha in the Peace Museum. They are all wearing burned clothes so you can recognize their sex. What I saw is different. People were naked after the blast and severely burnt, and I could not tell if they were men or women. A few times a year, when the sky looks so red with the burning sunset, I just cannot stand to watch it. It reminds me of August 6th.

Do you remember the time during WWII?
If I were a boy, I would have wanted to be a soldier. We were brainwashed by the military education to that extent that we thought it was natural. Nobody thought it was wrong to be a soldier.

One morning, my cousin left home to become a soldier. We celebrated his departure with red-bean rice and dried sardines. I sometimes wonder why we celebrated the day like that, even we knew he would die and never come home.

This is the nature of war. We could never say no. Everyone shut their mouths. Can you imagine? I don’t think so. I don’t think you understand real hunger either. You will never understand how it feels like to live in a time of war.

How would you describe Hiroshima after the war?
It is said that over six thousand children lost their parents to the A-bomb. Orphans in Hiroshima were treated badly after the war ended, so they were filled with hate for adults. Adults got drunk, killed themselves, or asked kids to get money for them. Orphans stole food and money, killed others, or became prostitutes to get money to survive. Adults took money from them. Children are always victims of wars and conflicts. Even today, in countries where most budgets are used for military expenditure to produce nuclear weapons, tens of thousands of kids starve to death on the streets.

How about yourself?
I became so sick because of the radiation. I was very fatigued and everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms. I saw my arms and thighs covered with purple spots and did not know why. Years later I was diagnosed with purpura, and my blood cells were severely damaged by radiation. I suddenly became conscious of my death. Many hibakusha were severely injured and burnt too. Since their burnt skin looked so red, someone (people) called hibakusha aka-oni, which means “red ogres,” and discriminated against them. The A-bomb killed one hundred and forty thousand citizens in 1945, but those who survived have been suffering from sickness and discrimination throughout their lives. We had no idea what was going on with our bodies because we could not see, smell, nor taste the radiation.


 Okada has been telling her experiences and thoughts as a hibakusha to the people in Japan and the world, especially in the US and the UK.

She recalled her visit to Missouri, where she saw a former American POW. He approached her and said “I worked as a POW in horrible conditions in Hokkaido for two years. How do you feel to meet someone like me?” Okada recalls herself saying that she learned nobody wins from war. She points out the importance of learning about peace and war together.

“The Peace Museum displays only tell about the great damage Japan suffered. However, it is also important to know about the many foreigners who were held in chains, forced to work in severe conditions, or killed in Japan. Education and the circumstances deeply affect us, especially children’s thoughts and behaviors. I saw so many Korean neighbors living poorly after the war. I remember mothers’ crying faces. At that time, we screamed harsh words at them, not knowing that was an act of discrimination.

“When I visited a small school in Seattle, I saw the world map. It looked different from the one we have in Japan. Our island was located in the Far East, and one student said she thought Japan was one of the islands of Korea. People need to learn history. Lots of hibakusha are getting too old to tell their stories. I am determined to tell my stories as long as I can, because young people should learn from our experiences.”

Okada concluded that she wanted me to meet other hibakusha too, because each person has different stories to tell. “My opinion about Obama’s speech is one perspective among many. People should have different opinions. That is what we call ‘peace’.”

Voices from People in Hiroshima

During my stay, I also talked with other hibakusha and some young volunteer guides who devote their lives to telling A-bomb stories.

Michiko Yamaoka, a “hibakusha-Nisei” (second-generation hibakusha), who works as a volunteer guide for the A-bomb legacy successor program is a “memory keeper” for her mother and Emiko Okada. On the day we met, she gave a talk to some students from Ohio State University. She delivered her talk with simple words and expression, without any exaggeration: not just because English is not her native language, but also because she carefully considers her role as a guide. She has been studying English by herself, and while she makes great efforts to speak clear and correct English, she pays more attention to what she tells through it.

“I tell only the truth, without any exaggeration, and this is all I need to do. I know people tend to prefer dramatized war stories. As a memory keeper I must pay attention to what I tell and how I can convey the most. Hibakusha are getting old and their memories are mixed up. Sometimes we hear a hibakusha telling us he saw the man was charred alive, and his bones were “standing” by the wall. There is no way this could happen, but we shouldn’t correct their memories. If he says he saw it, I think we should let him say so, because he went through so many difficult and awful times to survive. Nobody can blame him. However, we, as memory keepers, should not tell such stories to others. We must verify hibakusha’s stories by checking the archived records. We cannot tell the wrong stories, because stories become memories, and memories will be told as history.”

Through her English guide, Yamaoka noticed something different.“Japanese tourists very seldom ask me questions. They moan over the loss of victims’ lives and their future, but usually remain silent. They absorb sad stories and leave. In contrast, foreigners ask so many questions like “Why the bomb was dropped?” and “How the city was rebuilt after the war?” They say, “I must learn more about the A-bomb and history.”

Yamaoka says, “It’s so hard to keep peace, and we are all busy at work or with taking care of families. I have time to spare, but some may not. We cannot criticize them for not having enough time to work for peace. This is a volunteer-based job, so you won’t get money from it. Some must work to live, and I may not be able to do this in the future. Thus I am dedicating myself to this for as long as I can.”

Masaaki Murakami, aged 23, is a dedicated guide for FIG (Free and Informative Guide). He started working as a volunteer guide last year, when he was a student who was eager to find someone who speaks English. He started visiting the Peace Memorial Park and talking to foreigners and sometimes taught them how to fold origami cranes. During that time, he realized he knew almost nothing about the A-bomb.

“I even did not know where the hypocenter was. I am from Onomichi, Hiroshima, and have been here since I was born, but I have no hibakusha in my family. I remember we studied about the A-bombing of Hiroshima, but that did not go deep into my mind. I knew the date of the bombing, but that was all.”

Now he works at night and continues to stand in front of the A-bomb dome during the day.
“I’m here to guide people, every day except when it rains.” He guides foreigners in English. “Foreigners are very ardent. I hope more people will share a moment with us to learn about what happened 71 years ago. I hope President Obama’s visit and speech will motivate people to visit Hiroshima. I want people of my age to learn from Hiroshima and about the A-bomb, and think about it. You know the saying, ‘Ignorance becomes sin’.”

hiroshima couple

Most people I talked to had either positive, negative, or mixed feelings about President Obama’s visit, except for a couple known as Mr. and Mrs. Kido.

I met them on the day the president visited the park, just before the park was closed for security. I saw them walking towards the cenotaph, hand in hand, in slow and firm steps. Their prayer was short, but that showed this was just another daily prayer they were offering here. They were crying.

“What were you praying for?” I asked Mr. Kido. He said nothing, but cried. I did not know if I should continue talking to him, but his wife told me he had lost his best friends to the A-bomb. “His friends were all working outside to demolish houses in the area, to lessen the fire damage in case of a bomb attack. My husband was ill and under medical care at home in Hijiyama, so he was elsewhere. He lost his friends and an aunt that day.”

Mr. Kido cried. “I lost my best friends to the bomb. They were the kindest people.”

I could not tell whether he was critical about President Obama’s visit or not. He was deep in his sorrow and could not answer my question. This was when I realized that I was expecting hibakusha to tell me their raw feelings. Moreover, the way I talked to them was almost like I was forcing them to speak up for me. In my mind, I presumed them to be critical or favorable about this visit. However, there are people who just cannot put everything aside to commemorate this day. Mr. Kido came to offer a prayer today, but he would also come here tomorrow, and day after tomorrow. The prayers were his answers to my question; “How would you describe your feelings for President Obama?’

On my last day in Hiroshima, I was in front of the cenotaph in the park again. So many people had come to see the wreath, which in fact had been removed after the ceremony. People gathered and took pictures, smiling and making peace signs.

While I was praying, a young cameraman bumped into my shoulder. I opened my eyes and heard him gave a quick and indiscreet apology.

I left the park and took a long walk by the Ota River, up to the north where Hiroshima castle stands. By the castle three A-bombed trees still stand strong. I stood in front of a surviving camphor tree and held its ashen bark in my arms to resume my prayer. The voices of frolicking children were carried by the wind.

What compels you to visit Hiroshima?

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Ayako Matsushita

Author's Bio

Ayako Matsushita grew up in Hachioji City, Tokyo and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her poems and tanka have been published in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Iodine Poetry Journal, and the book Heisei Manyo-syu. She was also included in Best New Poets 2011. Her grandmother, Ikuko Matsushita is originally from Nagasaki, but was in Kobe at the time the A-bomb was dropped. Ikuko and her family survived the series of Kobe Air Raids in March 1945. Her experiences inspire Ayako to write poems and essays on WWII. Ayako currently lives in Tokyo, Japan.