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How Hiroshima survivors saw Obama's visit

On Saturday, a day after Barack Obama left, Hiroshima survivors expressed gratitude — wonder, even — that he had become the first sitting US president to visit the place where the nuclear age began.

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President Barack Obama hugs Shigeaki Mori, an atomic bomb survivor; creator of the memorial for American WWII POWs killed at Hiroshima, during a ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, western Japan, Friday, May 27, 2016. Obama on Friday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the world's first atomic bomb attack, bringing global attention both to survivors and to his unfulfilled vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

(AP Photo Carolyn Kaster)

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The survivors of the world's first atomic bomb attack are used to hearing grand vows to rid the world of nuclear weapons. They just don't usually come directly from the leader of the country that dropped the bomb on them in the first place.

On Saturday, a day after Barack Obama left, there was gratitude — wonder, even — that he had become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the place where the nuclear age began. But there was also clear-eyed recognition that the realities of a dangerous, fickle world may trump Obama's call for nations, including his own, to have the "the courage to escape the logic of fear" of nuclear weapons stockpiling.

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Hiroshima cherishes its survivors — a grove not far from the atomic bomb's hypocenter proudly displays signs announcing that these "A-bombed Trees" still thrive — but there's also some skepticism when faced with yet another anti-nuclear call, even from the leader of the world's sole superpower.

"The world paid attention to what happened here, even if just for a while, because someone as important as (Obama) came to Hiroshima. So perhaps it could make things a little bit better," Kimie Miyamoto, 89, a bomb survivor, said in an interview. "But you never know if it will really make a difference, because so much depends on what other countries are thinking as well."

Asked if Obama's visit could inspire those countries to abandon nuclear weapons, she shook her head. "I don't think so," she said, "because there are so many (bombs) in the world."

Long after Obama left for Washington, people here were loath to let go of his whirlwind trip.

Into the night, a line at Peace Memorial Park stretched from an arched stone monument that honors the 140,000 who died from the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing to a museum that tells the stories of some of those dead, about 200 meters (yards) away. People stood patiently, inching forward and waiting for their chance to take pictures of the wreath Obama had left behind.

People around Hiroshima were still talking about their glimpses of Obama as they lined the streets to watch his motorcade speed by or watched the media coverage that documented nearly every single moment of the two hours he spent in Hiroshima in a carefully choreographed political performance meant to close old wounds without inflaming new passions.

After each leader gave brief remarks, Obama approached two aging survivors of the bombing who were seated in the front row, standing in for the thousands still seared by memories of that day.

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Ninety-one-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, the head of a survivors group, energetically engaged the president in conversation, telling Obama he would be remembered as someone who listened to the voice of a few survivors. He urged him to come back and meet more.

"He was holding my hands until the end," Tsuboi said. "I was almost about to ask him to stop holding my hands, but he wouldn't."

Obama stepped over to meet historian Shigeaki Mori. Just 8 when the bomb hit, Mori had to hold back tears at the emotion of the moment.

Obama patted him on the back and wrapped him in a warm embrace

Beneath the thrill that lingered from Obama's star power, there was also a widespread desire to keep momentum going.

"We should not let President Obama's Hiroshima visit be just a ceremony," the left-leaning Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial Saturday. "He will be in office only eight more months. We hope the president will use the remaining time effectively to take concrete steps to leave a political legacy that will pave the way for a world without nuclear weapons."

Obama used the visit to call for a "moral revolution."

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well...

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again...

But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.

Some anti-nuclear activists worry that Obama's Hiroshima speech could turn out like his 2009 speech in Prague that helped secure him a Nobel Peace Prize: After the buzz dies down, there will be a return to business as usual.

"The world needs more than words," Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear group, said in a statement. "President Obama must take urgent action to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons being used again."

In an interview at the retirement home she shares with other bomb victims, Tsuyako Hiramatsu, 90, flipped through the pages of a book with a photograph of smiling young World War II pilots holding a puppy on its cover.

She marveled at Obama's political and military power, but said she had seen too many Japanese leaders who have said one thing in public and another in private to believe that there will ever be a world without war.

Since Obama received the Nobel for his anti-nuclear agenda, he has seen uneven progress and criticism over plans for a big, costly program to upgrade U.S. nuclear stockpiles.

Another bomb survivor, Michiko Kimoto, 87, also had doubts that Obama's visit would ever lead to a world without nuclear weapons. "You can never tell how people's minds work," she said.

One of the two survivors who met directly with Obama, 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, was more optimistic.

Tsuboi, like some other survivors, thought Obama had spent too little time in Hiroshima to fully understand the extent of the tragedy. But Obama's presidency, he told reporters, has pushed the world "a step or two forward" to the goal of nuclear disarmament.

"I think he has the strong leadership abilities to make it happen," he said.


Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.