Global Dialogues

A Mission of Reconciliation: Honoring the Victims of the Atomic Bomb

This past August, my wife and two sons and I traveled to Japan for the annual ceremonies honoring those who died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were the first members of the Truman family to do so. On our first full day in Tokyo, I sat down for an interview with Nana Yamada, the Nagasaki reporter for NHK, the country’s largest television network. Her third question was, “Are you here to apologize?” When I said no, she followed up with, “Then why are you here?”

Someone was going to ask that question – or something like it – but I had not expected it so soon or so bluntly. In the months leading up to the trip, my hosts, Masahiro Sasaki and his son, Yuji, reported that buzz in the Japanese media was overwhelmingly positive. In July, reporters from two Japanese papers interviewed me at home in Chicago and turned in upbeat stories. At one point, our friend, guide and interpreter, Kazuko Minamoto, even suggested that we hire bodyguards, not to protect us from angry mobs, but to keep us from being mobbed by all those who would want to get close enough for a look.

I explained to Ms. Yamada that this was a mission of reconciliation. I had come, I said, to honor those who died and hear the testimony of those who lived. That did not satisfy her. She rephrased her question several times, digging for a different answer. It got to the point that Kazuko was on the edge of her chair, ready to intervene.

All through the six-hour train ride to Hiroshima that afternoon I wondered how badly I had misread the Japanese view of my visit and whether or not the whole thing had been a colossal mistake. Out of respect for the survivors and their countrymen, I would not defend the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but neither could I apologize for my grandfather or my country. After all, I have shaken the hands of dozens of WWII veterans who tell me they probably wouldn’t have survived the invasion of the Japanese main islands. Despite Kazuko’s reassurance that I had handled the question as well as could be expected, I felt that I had struggled.

The following morning, I walked with my wife and sons and Yuji Sasaki to the Peace Memorial Park … and into a throng of 30 or 40 reporters and photographers. In the middle of the melee stood my host, Masahiro. With all the fuss, I wondered when I would have a chance to tell him of my misgivings. Apparently, he’d already heard because he reached out and hugged me. And in that instant, my worries all but vanished. Not everyone agreed with what we were doing and we would face more tough questions, but Masahiro reassured me unequivocally that we would do it together. (He also became something of an older brother, often throwing his arm around my shoulder and making sure that my family and I had plenty of fans and cold cloths to protect against the August heat.)

Many of you reading this know the story of Masahiro’s younger sister, Sadako. She was two when the bomb exploded above Hiroshima. She survived the blast only to be diagnosed with radiation-induced leukemia nine years later. In an effort to recover, she followed a Japanese tradition that says that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you are granted a wish. Sadako’s was, of course, to live. She folded more than 1,000 cranes, but it didn’t work. She died on October 25, 1955.

When my son Wesley was in fourth grade, he brought home the book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and we read it together. Not long afterward, I mentioned that to Kinue Tokudome, a writer and founder and director of the US-Japan Dialog on POWs, who was writing a story on the anniversary of the bombings. The piece was printed in Japan and not long after, I received a phone call from Masahiro.

We met in 2010 in New York, where Masahiro and Yuji were donating one of Sadako’s last original cranes to the World Trade Center Memorial. They have also donated a crane to the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. During our New York meeting, Yuji gently placed a tiny paper crane in my palm. It was the last one his aunt folded before she died. It was then that he and his father asked me to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When I agreed, they promised to donate yet another crane to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, which Yuji did in September of 2012.

Masahiro, Yuji and the 25 other survivors I met in Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached out without any expectation other than I take part and listen. We didn’t confab on our talking points or discuss how to stay on message. Both sides just showed up with open minds and open hearts. The only thing survivors asked after our meeting was that I help tell their stories so that future generations will never again use nuclear weapons.

I hope that more Americans and more Japanese will open their minds and their hearts. As tough as it might be, it’s important. My late brother, Will, and I had a difficult relationship. Each meeting ended with drinking, yelling and swearing. Each time, we vowed never to speak to each other again. Two weeks later, the phone would ring. “How come you never call?” he’d say. “Are you kidding?” I’d ask. “Do you remember what happened the last time?” And he’d just say, “Yeah, well …” He never gave up. No matter how bad it had been, no matter what we had said to each other, he never quit trying.

As for Ms. Yamada, when I returned to the States she sent me an email thanking me for answering frankly to some “not very nice” questions. Since then, we’ve been staying in touch.