Letters from the White House

By MATTHEW ORMSETH, Rafu Contributor

In November 2015, Yoshio Nishimoto was sitting in his study when his wife came in with the mail. There’s a letter for you, she said. It’s from the president.

“I said, ‘My God!’” he remembered. “It just blew me away.”

Yoshio Nishimoto with two letters he received from President Obama. (MATTHEW ORMSETH/Rafu Shimpo)

Nishimoto had written President Obama three months earlier, urging him to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The president’s response — though gracious — refrained from promising to visit the two cities, something no sitting president had done before.

“I want you to know I am committed to seeking a world free of nuclear weapons and to using diplomacy to clear the path to peace and prosperity throughout the international community,” he wrote. “I will keep your message in mind.”

The following April, however, with speculation mounting that the president would visit Hiroshima on a trip to Japan for the G7 summit, Nishimoto wrote him again.

“As an 83-year-old, third-generation Japanese American, I shall be making my final visit to Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in June of this year,” he wrote. “I am sure they would be looking forward to your visit.”

A little over a month after Nishimoto sent the second letter, Obama visited Hiroshima and spoke at the memorial to the bombing. And in August, Nishimoto received a second letter from the president, signed in pen with a big, looping B.

“I visited Hiroshima not to apologize, but to honor the memory of all who lost their lives during World War II and reaffirm out commitment to working toward a world where nuclear weapons will no longer be necessary,” he wrote. “Again, thank you for writing.”

Each day, White House aides sift through thousands of letters addressed to the president, The New York Times reported in 2009. A handpicked 10 are placed in the president’s briefing book every weeknight, and he will occasionally respond to some of them.

Mike Kelleher, former director of the White House Office of Correspondence, told The New York Times he rarely opted for pats on the back. “We pick messages that are compelling, things people say that, when you read it, you get a chill,” he said. “I send him letters that are uncomfortable messages.”

Nishimoto’s first letter to the president included a photo taken by a U.S. Marine after the bombing of Nagasaki. A young boy stands at attention, back ramrod-straight. Strapped to his back is the body of his baby brother. The Marine took the picture at a trench, where the boy was waiting to cremate the body.

“War has been depersonalized via airstrikes, but the ground-level destructions, pain and suffering of people still remain unchanged,” Nishimoto wrote in the accompanying letter.

A Japanese boy standing at attention after having brought his dead younger brother to a cremation pyre. Nagasaki, 1945. (Photo by Marine Sgt. Joe O’Donnell)

Some 80,000 people died when Col. Paul Tibbets dropped Little Boy, a 10,000-pound uranium bomb, on Hiroshima. Another 70,000 would die from radiation poisoning. In all, 30 percent of the city’s population perished in the attack.

Nishimoto’s mother lost three sisters in the bombing.

“The three of them were downtown around 8 o’clock, when work began,” he said. Little Boy was dropped at 8:15 the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.

It was a blast that reverberated throughout the rest of his mother’s life, he said. The family never recovered her sisters’ bodies.

“I said, ‘Wasn’t there anything?’” Nishimoto recalled asking as a child. “Well, you can’t identify a finger, or a partial limb. They were just blown all over the place.”

“That was the first and last time I asked,” he said.

His mother was born in San Juan Bautista in Northern California, but the family returned to her parents’ hometown of Hiroshima when she was in her early twenties. There, she met Nishimoto’s father, and the two married in 1931. They moved to Los Angeles shortly after, and Yoshio was born in 1933. The family settled in Boyle Heights, where they lived until they were sent to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona in 1942.

At Poston, Nishimoto’s father refused to sign a controversial loyalty questionnaire, and the family was sent to Tule Lake in Northern California, where a special detention center had been built to house internees suspected of disloyalty. It was at Tule Lake that Nishimoto’s parents read about the bombing of Hiroshima in a clipping from The San Francisco Chronicle.

Because he was only 12 years old at the time, Nishimoto said he doesn’t know for certain when his mother heard about her sisters’ deaths. Camp authorities restricted mail between internees and relatives in Japan, and he believes it was only after the camp had closed that she found out.

After the war, his family returned “homeless and penniless” to Los Angeles, he said, where they shared a house with his uncle’s family in West Los Angeles. Nishimoto recalled the poverty that descended on every Japanese American family in those years, regardless of their standing before the war.

“Everybody was a gardener — it didn’t