Japan: Will Obama meet the survivors of Hiroshima?

New Matilda 11th November 2009

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.