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Teaching Obama’s Hiroshima Speech with Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine

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Curriculum Connection:  Japanese Internment, Reparations, and Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine.

By David Hillis, Portland Public Schools

Rationale: In 2016, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the first-ever atomic bombing. The visit was monumental in the context of US and Japanese relations, inspiring several books in Japan, including “The Day When President Obama visited Hiroshima,”  which details the United States evolving attitude toward nuclear weapons evidenced by Obama’s call for a world without nuclear war within this speech.   This speech has many different audiences and makes for a rich cite of discourse. Obama must diplomatically walk the line between a number of historical narratives.  He knows that many Americans will be incensed by an apology for an act that they feel saved more lives than it took, while many Japanese citizens will see nothing short of an apology as acceptable.  From the perspective of the Chinese Government, Japan was a perpetrator who brought this upon themselves.  An apology to Japan before Japan makes redress for World War II, could damage US and Chinese relations, especially considering Japans movements toward militarization.  The context of the speech is made even more complex by the bitter irony that the US has seen a slowing in nuclear disarmament under Obama, and Obama has announced plans to spend one trillion dollars on nuclear energy as well as the construction of small nuclear weapons over the next thirty years.  In short, this speech makes for a great opportunity for students to look at the implications of diplomatic language.

Goal: Students will work to understand how audiences respond differently to the same text based on historical and political context.

Academic Vocabulary: Framing, Staging, Atmosphere.

  1. Pre-reading:   Distribute copies of the transcript. Consider watching the speech with your students. Have them look at a still frame from early in the speech to talk about the staging of the speech and the framing of it.  Consider using “Image A.” Who is on Stage?  Why? Where are they? Do they notice the ruins in the background?  You may want to get familiar with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  Ask your students to describe how the staging of the speech and the framing of this historical moment develop our sense of the atmosphere. After you watch a few moments of the speech, you might ask them to comment on the sound and atmosphere as well.  
  2. Check for understanding (Level 1):  After vividly describing the bombing of Hiroshima, Obama poses and answers the question, “Why are we here?”  What are his answers?  Then point out that Obama asks “Why do we come to this place?” and while he provides some answers, they are not the only answers (Be sure to point out that this is a rhetorical strategy. Notice how Obama frames the discourse in a way that is safe for him).  Ask students, what may be some other reasons “Why we come to place” that he doesn’t give voice to?  See what your students come up with – to seek peace, to mourn the dead… If they don’t get there, explain that many people came to see this speech hoping for an apology. 
  3. Developing Background: Point out that Obama announced prior to the trip that he would not be offering an apology.  Some students may not understand the complexity of an apology from a head of state.  See if anyone in the class can explain why the President would not apologize?  What would an apology mean?  Do a quick temperature check to see if they feel an apology is appropriate.
  4. Close Reading: After you establish the central tension of conflicting historical perspectives on the event, namely, an American perspective that the bomb saved more lives than it cost and was a necessary response to Japanese aggression, and the Japanese perspective that this was an inexcusable atrocity, an act of evil.  You can ask students, if Obama isn’t offering an apology , then what is he doing?  As you read and/or listen to the rest of the speech, ask your students to mark language that seems especially defensive of American policy and language that is sympathetic or apologetic.  They should also track points of curiosity and confusion with question marks in the margin.
  5. Reading / Viewing: Chunk the text in portions suitable to your classroom and pause to first address any of those points of confusion and curiosity and then to hear the language and arguments that they found either defensive or apologetic. Help them go deeper into these moments. If you’ve taught them the three appeals, ask them to identify the appeals being used in each of these circumstances. For the first chunk, do this as a whole class.  For the second chunk, do this is pairs or small groups.  After the first chunk, as a class see if you can outline the purpose of this speech.  As a class you could try to bring it to a sentence.  This sentence can be revised after subsequent chunks.   You may also do this as a list.
  6. Check for understanding: What does Obama call “Humanity’s Core Contradictions.”  Do you agree with the way he framed human nature?
  7. Extension: If you want to present the conflicting historical narratives detailed in the rationale of the lesson, you might ask students to keep track of where Obama is making statements that diplomatically address one group or another.  Afterwards, you can give students the task of finding an article that analyzes the speech. How was it received in Japan? China?  America?  Look for both positive and negative responses.  In this search, students should identify the evaluation given by the analyst, what details they seized upon in Obama’s speech, and the historical, cultural, or political perspective that the analyst represents.

Materials Needed:

Connections to Advanced Language and Literature:

  • If you are reading When the Emperor Was Divine, you could use this lesson in conjunction with TOPICS FOR COMPOSING: Research / Argument at the end of that section.  There, students are given a research task to think about Ronald Reagan’s formal apology to victims of Japanese internment and legislation that paid reparations to survivors.  If so, add to this lesson a deeper conversation about why Obama does not offer an apology here.   Students should compare and contrast the moral implications of internment and bombing.  Our nation has officially decided one deserves an apology and the other doesn’t. Why?  Is it citizenship that changes the attitude of the US towards the atrocities? Something else?  Do they agree or disagree with the stance the government has taken.  Encourage them to use their experience with Otsuka’s text to explain their position.
  • This text also makes an excellent companion to Truman’s statement following the bombing. Use this text after completing the lesson on Truman’s speech.  Then complete the lesson outlined above.  After both texts have been carefully studied on their own and within their original context, students should be prepared to compare and contrast subtleties of style and tone.  List the important shifts in attitude (tone) and perspective.  How do your students account for the change in perspective?   This may also be a good companion for the Otsuka unit.


IMAGE A: Taken from