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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 matter if you had a college degree or not,” he said. His family lived on cans of Spam and soup from a local food bank, which they heated on a wood stove.

Nishimoto joined the Army in 1953, and while stationed in Germany he met a Japanese student who shared his interest in industrial design. Years later, Nishimoto reconnected with him in Tokyo, where his friend had started a design firm working on Yamaha’s first electronic keyboard. Nishimoto became the firm’s American representative, a liaison between Japanese industrial executives and American trade groups.

Nishimoto has always believed in the power of commerce to knit together the wounds of war. “Because of the market, Japan has always taken a pretty positive view of America,” he said. Trade has intertwined the fortunes of the two countries, and even if Americans and Japanese may not object to war on moral grounds, he hopes they might for economic reasons.

Nishimoto said he’s disturbed by the ease and efficiency of killing in the modern age.

“With drones and all that, they’re trying to make war impersonal. They try to make war an abstraction,” he said. “It’s not abstract; it’s not philosophical. It’s just bloody. Just bloody.

“We try to sanitize it with words and metaphors. There’s no acceptable metaphor for a dead body, all bloodied up, its limbs gone.”

He’s put together a binder, several hundred pages thick, of his family’s history and the story of the bomb. He hopes his four-year-old grandson will read that story when he comes of age. His grandson visited Japan for the first time last summer and spent a week in Tokyo; Nishimoto went a week earlier to visit Hiroshima, alone.

“You reach a certain point, and you reflect on all these experiences. And that sort of summarizes your life, whether you like it or not,” he said. “It’s not good or bad. It’s what happened.”

Nishimoto is similarly ambivalent about Obama’s tenure in office, which will come to an end this January. On the one hand, his administration ramped up the use of drones in the war on terror. In July of this year, a White House report revealed 2,700 people were killed by drones from 2009 to 2015. Anywhere from 64 to 116 of them were non-combatants, the report acknowledged.

On the other hand, Obama worked to scale back the world’s nuclear arsenals, brokering a historic agreement with Iran in 2015.

But it was how he managed to hold together a country divided along racial, religious and political fault lines that impressed Nishimoto the most, he said.

“This country’s got more complex problems than any other country in the world,” he said. “With so many different cultures, you have to expect conflict.”

Nishimoto grew up behind the fences of an internment camp, but he doesn’t believe the xenophobia his family experienced came from an evil or hateful place, necessarily.

“I think hostility and discrimination are part of the process of getting to know somebody,” he said. “Not that I want to encourage discrimination — but if you don’t know who people are, you don’t feel very comfortable.

“It takes time to figure out how to get together, and I think Obama operated that way. He kept trying.”

The two letters are among Nishimoto’s most prized possessions, and they’ll be in the binder when he hands it off to his grandson.

But there is only so much a letter can do, he said, and at some point Nishimoto felt he was trying to communicate the incommunicable when he wrote about Hiroshima.

“How do you even convey that?” he asked, shaking his head.

There are events whose horror can never be understood, and Nishimoto said the letters are merely “a second-hand experience, an artificial experience” of the bombing.

But in his exchange with Nishimoto, Obama tried to understand. He wrote not one, but two letters in response.

He kept trying.

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