It’s amazing that Sunao Tsuboi survived the atomic bomb blast of 1945 at all — let alone the subsequent years of chronic disease, blood disorders, and two bouts of cancer. Yet he’s made it to the age of 84 possessing a remarkable vitality.
When I arrive to interview him on the third floor of the Hiroshima Peace Hall, we discover the door is locked. Tsuboi shuns the elevator, and, with startling speed, darts down the stairwell and returns with a key.
To illustrate his place in the world’s first nuclear attack he shows me a copy of one of the most iconic images of World War II: the huge billowing mushroom cloud rising above the destroyed city of Hiroshima, shortly after the Enola Gay dropped the bomb. He points to the base of the mushroom "stalk" and says, "that’s where I was".
Tsuboi was 20-years-old and walking to university when the atomic bomb exploded above him. The intense heat tore off his clothes and burnt nearly his entire body. His ears melted down the side of his face. For the first six months, his mother was told everyday by the doctor, "your son will not make it through the night".
The after-effects of radiation exposure are just as severe. Tsuboi has been hospitalised 10 times in his life, and three times, he not expected to survive when he was admitted. He has chronic aplastic anaemia — which means his bone marrow doesn’t make enough blood cells — and he is also undergoing treatment for cancer. His running joke during the afternoon is only the good die young, so he endures.
When I met him in October, Tsuboi, a chair of the Japan Confederation of A and H Bomb Sufferers, was focussing his considerable energy on convincing US President Barack Obama to visit Hiroshima. It was announced this week that Obama won’t include Hiroshima in this week’s one-day stopover in Japan on the way to the APEC conference — but he has declared a willingness to visit both Hiroshima and Nagasaki while in office.
In a letter encouraging the American President to visit, Tsuboi wrote: "We survivors have had a glimpse of the end of the world. Thus, we are carriers of the warning … please come and see with your own eyes why you must do everything in your power to abolish all nuclear weapons as soon as possible."
He was taking part in a campaign led by survivors of the atomic bomb blast, known in Japan as hibakusha to bring Obama to Hiroshima for Universal Peace Day on 6 August. It’s also attracted huge support from the community, the Japanese media, and the Mayor of Hiroshima, who personally travelled to the US Embassy in Tokyo to make a request. Fashion Designer Issey Miyake also wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a visit, for the first time publicly revealing that he was a hibakusha.
The push for a presidential visit to Hiroshima was sparked by a speech Obama gave in Prague in April. In a first for an American president, he committed his administration to pursuing not just a reduction in nuclear weapons, but their abolition; "a world without nuclear weapons". He also acknowledged that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act".
As well as helping land him the Nobel Peace Prize, this speech gave renewed hope to hibakusha, many of whom have spent their lives campaigning to make sure no one else experiences what they did.
Tsuboi, whose hatred of nuclear weapons is visceral — "they are the absolute evil" he says repeatedly — has spent the last three decades travelling to mainly nuclear-armed states to lobby and protest. He believes the Prague speech revealed Obama as a powerful new ally.
"That was a historical and memorable speech. Hiroshima sufferers have the same desire, our desire is to abolish nuclear weapons and also to create a nuclear free world. Soon after his speech our bomb sufferer groups held nation-wide meetings, and we decided we will work with him, because he is going in the same direction as us."
It’s been a dismal decade for the nuclear non-proliferation movement, and hope and leadership are desperately needed. Obama has, for now, dashed the hopes of the hibakusha in his decision not to visit Hiroshima this week. But expectations of the American President as an advocate of nuclear non-proliferation remain high — can he live up to them?
At the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research unit of Hiroshima City University, I meet Professor Motofumi Asai. Asai is a former foreign affairs official, academic, and currently president of the Peace Institute. His view of progress on disarmament and non-proliferation in the last decade is bleak: "As far as I recall, there has been nothing".
While the finger of blame is frequently pointed at the recalcitrance of North Korea and Iran on disarmament, particularly in the Western press, Asai takes a different position. "Very simply, it was because of the existence of the Bush administration for eight years". Asai argues that without an American willingness to move forward on disarmament and non-proliferation — which Bush did not have — little can be achieved.
In the Prague speech, Obama committed his Administration to some of the key planks of the nuclear disarmament process that lay dormant during the Bush years. He identified as goals the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the US Senate, a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, and the negotiation of a treaty to end the production of fissile materials.
Each of these goals will present considerable hurdles — although progress has already been made on the latter two. Asai says it will be a significant advance if Obama’s goals are achieved, but cautions that they are still small steps towards a world free of nuclear weapons. "There is a very big difference and distance between disarmament, or the control of the armaments, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. I don’t know how to bridge this gap."
Developments in the next six months are critical. Next May, the only existing international treaty that keeps the untrammelled spread of nuclear weapons at bay is up for review. The last Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2005 ended in failure, and some are warning the whole treaty could collapse unless 2010 is a success.
Motufumi Asai thinks it is unlikely that Obama will become the first serving US President ever to visit Hiroshima, in spite of the President’s expression of a desire to the contrary. Why? Because a visit and a meeting with survivors would suggest an American admission that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a mistake. There is no such admission. Asai points out that while Obama has admitted a "moral responsibility" for the bombings, he has never said it was a mistaken policy to bomb the two cities.
"If you think the use of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong, then how could you justify the holding of nuclear weapons? The holding of nuclear weapons is entirely based upon the hypothetical assumption that nuclear weapons can be used correctly."
Asai believes the only real way forward to a nuclear free world is to acknowledge that there is never a "right time" to use nuclear weapons. "The theory of nuclear deterrence has been based upon the US belief that the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki was correct. As long as they stick to this theory, there will be no inch forward."
There’s no doubt the prospect of visiting Hiroshima places the President in a bind. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to pursuing a nuclear free world, it seems inconsistent for him to go to Japan and not visit the sites of the world’s only nuclear attacks. But likewise, it would be incredibly difficult to meet survivors like Sunao Tsuboi without expressing regret for the bombings.
Tsuboi takes me to a site in Hiroshima he calls his special place. Miyuki Bridge is where a make-shift triage station was set up on the day of the bombing, and it was here that Tsuboi first expected to die. He points himself out in a black and white photo erected on the bridge that shows he and other survivors burnt and terrified.
Despite his ill health, Tsuboi says he "can’t die yet" as he still has to lead a team of activists to the Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York next year. He has accepted his goal of a nuclear free world won’t be achieved in his lifetime. Reflecting on this, he says, "I feel like I want to cry. Not for me, but for all the people in the world".
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