Hiroshima Memo: U.S. president and Japanese prime minister should listen to the voices of Hiroshima’s children

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

"Listen to the voice of God's small children."

Arata Osada (1887-1961), once a professor at Hiroshima University, was the editor of "Children of the Atomic Bomb," a collection of essays by children who experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that was published in 1951 by Iwanami Shoten. Mr. Osada reportedly penned the above dedication in the books he gave to these children.

To Mr. Osada, the children's voices, filled with a pure longing for peace while struggling to rise above the ashes of anger, sorrow, poverty, and pain, seemed like those of God's children.

I took the book off my shelf and again read the now-yellowed pages.

"As a result of the atom bomb our big house was wrecked, my brother's ears were ruined, my little sister was pinned under the roof and the tiles fell off the roof and squashed her flat." (5th grade boy, 5 years old in 1945)

"At the site of the Japan Red Cross Hospital, the smell of bodies being cremated is overpowering. Too much sorrow makes me like a stranger to myself, and yet despite my grief I cannot cry. … I who know the evil of the atom bomb believe that we must make another bloody war impossible. I pray that everyone will remember that 6th of August so that there will be lasting peace." (10th grade boy, in 4th grade in 1945)

Among the more than 1,000 essays that were collected, 105 were selected for "Children of the Atomic Bomb." The essays by children in Hiroshima, ranging from elementary school to university students, are still touching to read.

As I was looking at the book again, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Japan on his Asia tour. After their meeting, Mr. Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama issued a statement in which they pledged to make efforts for "total nuclear abolition." And in a nearly 30-minute speech on U.S. policy toward Asia delivered the next day, President Obama stressed his nation's commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

At the same time, Mr. Obama stated clearly that so long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, "the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent," citing the grounds "to guarantee the defense of our allies, including South Korea and Japan."

While Japan was under the rule of the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ), the Korean War broke out in 1950, one year before "Children of the Atomic Bomb" was published. The war led to the division of the Korean Peninsula, resulting in the Cold War configuration in East Asia, which regrettably lingers on. However, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, which was triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall and had global repercussions, human beings are now facing a dramatically different world.

The planet is increasingly a place of mutual dependence in such spheres as the economy, global warming, environmental destruction, widespread poverty and the fight against terrorism. Under these circumstances, the cooperation of the global community is essential. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama regard China, a nuclear power, as a "global partner" in tackling such issues as nuclear abolition and global warming. However, does Japan really need the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" to fend off the nuclear capability and military strength of North Korea, a poor nation suffering from a shortage of food?

Speaking before the world leaders at the United Nations, Prime Minister Hatoyama vowed that Japan would be a leader in advancing nuclear abolition "as the only victim of nuclear bombings." The Hatoyama administration, which has revealed diplomatic and security policies that depend not only on military might, should seriously pursue a path that will lead to Japan getting out from under the nuclear umbrella. This would promote nuclear disarmament and abolition in the nuclear weapon states, including in the United States and Russia, as well as help prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to such nations as North Korea and Iran.

"The essays by the children of the atomic bomb have been written with blood and tears not only for the world's mothers and fathers and teachers and students, but also for the 2.37 billion members of the human family found on earth, endowed with the same human nature."

This is what Mr. Osada, a scholar of education, wrote in the preface to "Children of the Atomic Bomb." Even under the press code administered by allied forces, Mr. Osada had the book published and was prepared to resign his post over this decision. Nearly 60 years have now passed since then. Those who recounted their experiences for the book, appealing for a world free of nuclear weapons and war, could never condone Mr. Obama's pledge to protect Japan by use of the nuclear umbrella.

Fortunately, there is an English translation of "Children of the Atomic Bomb." If President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama are truly determined to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth, I would urge them both to read the book and take its messages to heart.

(Originally published on November 16, 2009)