Rep. Mark Takano didn’t know about his family history in Hiroshima, Japan, until he visited relatives there in 2002.
He didn’t know his great-aunt was supposed to be working near the bomb site that day, or about the bodies that choked the river or how residents tried to use cucumber to try and cool burned skin that ended up falling off anyway.
His trip made the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing real to Takano, and the Riverside Democrat is asking President Obama to make a similar stop when he visits Japan next month, saying political leaders in any countries with nuclear arsenals should see the site themselves.
“I think it would be very meaningful for him to do before he leaves office,” Takano said in an interview between House votes Thursday. “It’s a place that I think people should visit. It makes you very thoughtful, very reflective, especially if you are in a position of leadership and power, this is a place you should go.”
No sitting U.S. president has visited the site where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in the final days of World War II. The blast and fallout killed 140,000 people.
Takano speculated that American politicians have likely wanted to avoid the appearance that the United States is apologizing. Many Americans believe that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima, and on the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later, were justified and hastened the war's end.
Seeing an American president visit Hiroshima would heal old wounds, Takano said.
“It would be enormously healing for both sides. We have an alliance that could be made stronger,” he said.
Obama is scheduled to travel to Mie, Japan, for the G-7 Summit on May 26 and 27 along with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom.
During his first year in office, Obama said he would be "honored" to visit Hiroshima, but a final decision about whether he will make the trip in late May hasn't been announced. The president has visited a concentration camp in Germany.
Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima on April 11 with others preparing for the summit.
Kerry called touring the museum "gut-wrenching" and urged all world leaders to visit.
"It tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being. It reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices of war and what war does to people, to communities, countries, the world," Kerry said. "I don't see how anyone could forget the images, the evidence, the re-creations of what happened."
Takano spoke on the House floor Thursday and sent the president a letter urging a visit.
"A visit to Hiroshima is not an apology on America’s behalf. It is a signal that the commander in chief of the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons appreciates their power and it sets an example for other world leaders to follow," he wrote in the letter.
A White House official would only say that the president is looking forward to the summit and further details about the trip haven't yet been released.
Takano was visiting a second cousin and great-aunt when he learned that his great-aunt Kikue Takagi was a survivor of the bombing but had never been to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park or to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
Takagi had been sick the days before the bomb fell, and her mother had kept her home rather than send her along with her middle school classmates who were clearing fire lanes in the heart of the city.
“All of the middle school students were expected to go in and do public service, in this case right at ground zero, right downtown,” he said. “Most of her classmates were there and a lot of teachers. That made a huge impression on me.”
Tattered school uniforms from the thousands of students who died were among the museum exhibits, he said.
As they drove to the museum, his great-aunt pointed out the car window to the Ota River.
“She just said to me in halting English, 'They say that you could not see the river because it was so covered with floating bodies,'” Takano said. “I thought at that moment, I really think that anybody that controls a nuclear arsenal ought to come here and experience what the consequences of using one of these weapons is.”
Takano's great-uncle, an elementary school student at the time, was cut by flying glass. Other relatives closer to the blast saw their skin turn grey and leathery or tried to use cucumber slices to cool the burns because there was no medicine.
His great-grandmother saw the explosion from a sweet potato patch in the mountains, and initially thought it was a fertilizer fire, he said.
“The fact that I was related to a survivor began a whole new relationship that I had with this blast. It wasn’t a historical fact that was distant, abstract. It was very personal and there was a living connection to me,” Takano said.
Takano is one of three Japanese American members of the California delegation in Congress.
“It’s something my family never ever brought up. We never thought to ask her these questions. My family was reeling just a few decades out of internment camps and ... [had] distanced themselves from Japan,” Takano said. “Our Americanism had been so doubted and questioned."
Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics.