HIROSHIMA – Should U.S. President Barack Obama opt to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum later this week, Kenji Shiga, its director, is adamant that he wouldn’t ask too much.
Shiga doesn’t expect to hear the president renew his commitment to peace and nuclear nonproliferation. Nor would he demand an apology for the U.S. decision 71 years ago to drop an atomic bomb on his city.
All Shiga wants from Obama, he said, is for the president to feel what happened under the mushroom cloud that rose above the world’s first atomic-bombed city on Aug. 6, 1945.
“I want him to face our displays not as someone in power, but as a human being, or a father,” Shiga said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“What happened under that cloud were the deaths of innocent civilians — many youngsters in their early teens burned to black — who died the way humans should never do,” he said.
Although not officially announced yet, reports indicate Obama is highly likely to visit the museum, a move that would become one of the highlights of his historic trip to Hiroshima slated for Friday.
Hosting him, Shiga said, would be the “biggest event” ever experienced by the 61-year-old museum, long considered a backbone of Hiroshima’s postwar movement for peace and nuclear disarmament.
As much as he welcomes Obama’s visit, Shiga, the 12th director to head the museum, said he intends to keep his distance and merely “watch” the president as he explores the museum.
“My job simply boils down to creating an environment where the president can sense the power of our displays with full equanimity,” he said.
His reserve stems partly from the fact that unlike many of his predecessors, Shiga, 63, did not experience the bombing, and this has made him hesitant to preach the inhumanity of the event and the need to abolish nuclear power.
Still, Shiga made no secret of his own belief that the bombing of Hiroshima was never justifiable, as opposed to the deep-set notion widely held overseas that America’s use of the nuclear weapon pushed Japan to surrender and end the war.
“Japan was so impoverished at the time there is no way it could’ve won the battle, and the U.S. knew it. It was a matter of time before Japan lost anyway,” Shiga said.
“The U.S. could have dropped the bomb somewhere more deserted if it just wanted to show off what a powerful weapon it had” and end the war, he said.
But the fact that it chose to bombard innocent civilians instead with no warning makes the decision unjustifiable, he added.
Despite his strong belief, Shiga believes the memorabilia at the museum will speak for itself of the nuclear blast’s horrendous power. Shiga is hopeful that just looking at them will make Obama feel compelled to reinforce his belief in nuclear disarmament.
“Once he is done touring our museum, President Obama will probably use his own words to describe what he saw, and his words — coming from a man known for his slogan of ‘Yes, we can’ — carry great influence. We will simply see what he has to say,” Shiga said.
In fact, the museum has long prided itself in its unbridled display of photographs, drawings and models of victims burned so severely that their skin disintegrated, or in some cases, their facial features were all but unrecognizable. Personal belongings such as ragged clothes and incinerated lunch boxes also stand as testament to the extent of the blast.
The emotional impact of these objects was so huge that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called them “gut-wrenching” when he toured the museum last month.
Some children who visit the museum on school trips, Shiga said, end up crying uncontrollably, while tourists from home and abroad often scribble down words of shock and disbelief at what they saw in notebooks placed near the exit.
“Some write down their thoughts like mad, going as long as a two full pages. I believe that’s how powerful our displays are,” he said.
For foreign tourists who visited the museum last week, seeing the items on display was an eye-opening experience.
Canadian student Natasha, who declined to give her last name, said she believes the displays made atomic bombing personal.
“It makes you realize that it’s not just the number” of victims, she said.
Coming from Canada, Natasha had been taught about the tragedy.
“(But) we don’t realize exactly the extent of it. But then coming here and seeing all those clothes, hair and nails and pictures of the people, it definitely makes you realize that each number is a person that died,” she said.
Christopher Branson, 55, and Carolyn Branson, 52, meanwhile, came to visit the museum to pay their respects to the people of Hiroshima. Christopher called the models and dolls resembling the hibakusha “gut-wrenching but very powerful.”
The American couple said they are both “thrilled” that Obama will be visiting Hiroshima.
As Christopher put it: “I think it’s overdue. (But) I’m so glad that we have a president willing to face our past and acknowledge it.”
However, he also confessed to mixed feelings about the idea of Obama apologizing for the bombing. U.S. officials have said Obama doesn’t intend to offer an apology.
“The complicating factor is there are many people in America who lost families in that war and who don’t want to feel like the president is telling them they lost their families for a bad cause,” he said.
His wife, meanwhile, had a different take. She said the U.S. should apologize as a country because the bombing was a “crime against humanity.”
“Every country did bad things but I think we in the U.S. are uniquely responsible for dropping an atomic bomb on innocent people,” Carolyn said.
“So I apologize on behalf of my country,” she said, before bowing down in a gesture of contrition.