HIROSHIMA – Japan commemorated the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Thursday with renewed determination to abolish nuclear weapons and pursue world peace, although many people said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to expand the country’s military role weakened such pledges.
Global interest in the anniversary appeared particularly high this year.
The annual ceremony at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park drew foreign ambassadors and dignitaries from a record 100 countries, including the nuclear armed United States, United Kingdom, Russia and France.
The U.S. sent Ambassador Caroline Kennedy for the second consecutive year and Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, for the first time.
After observing a moment of silence to mourn the dead, Abe reaffirmed Japan’s pledge to fulfill its responsibility, as the world’s only victim of nuclear warfare, to “eliminate nuclear weapons from the world.”
But in a break from tradition, the prime minister made no allusion to Japan’s three nonnuclear principles, which declare the nation’s nonpossession, nonproduction and nonintroduction of nuclear weapons.
Nor did he touch on his government’s security bills that opponents — including atomic bomb survivors — say undermine the nation’s pacifist postwar Constitution.
Abe said it was “disappointing” that global leaders were unable to reach a consensus on a final declaration during the ninth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May. Japan will submit a fresh resolution on the abolition of atomic weapons to the United Nations General Assembly in the fall, he said.
In the annual peace declaration, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui joined Abe in calling for the abolition of nuclear arms and decried the world’s continued pursuit of such weapons.
“Policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation,” Matsui said.
“People of the world, please listen carefully to the words of the hibakusha and, profoundly accepting the spirit of Hiroshima, contemplate the nuclear problem as your own,” he said.
With Japan slated to host next year’s Group of Seven summit, and a foreign ministerial meeting in Hiroshima prior to that event, the mayor urged U.S. President Barack Obama and other global policymakers to come to visit his city and learn first-hand about the destruction caused by the atomic bomb.
The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing came at a time when the Abe government is pushing security bills through the Diet that would enable the Self-Defense Forces to battle alongside Japan’s allies to protect them from aggression.
In testament to growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s heavy-handed push, angry shouts erupted from the crowd as Abe left the stage, in what sounded like criticism of the defense policy shift.
A group of protesters held a march through the park after the ceremony to oppose the bills, which they called “pro-war.”
Although refraining from directly criticizing the bills, Mayor Matsui said he believes “broadly versatile security systems that do not depend on military might” and continued promotion of the “pacifism of the Japanese Constitution” are vital to abolish nuclear weapons.
Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, warned that the country’s long-standing pursuit of pacifism is now on the verge of collapse.
“Sadly, we are seeing this tradition in Japan being eroded by the Abe government as it begins to dismantle the so-called peace Constitution and doggedly pursue nuclear power at the expense of clean, safe renewables,” Sato said in a statement released Thursday.
This view was echoed by 41-year-old Hiroshima native Kazuya Ishikawa, who was among those who came to the park to offer a prayer.
“To be honest, I don’t know how Abe dared to attend the ceremony this year,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel right that the very person who is pushing for the bills is attending the event.”
Although Abe disputes claims that the bills will pave the way for Japan to wage war and stresses they are instead designed to help bolster the nation’s defense capabilities, the fact nonetheless remains, Ishikawa said, that many members of the public are worried about the potential implications.
“The government needs to be accountable,” he said.
Meanwhile, an 87-year-old hibakusha who declined to give his name, said visiting the ceremony has always brought him sadness as he ruminates over the death of his parents, who still remain unaccounted for.
“War should never be repeated. It’s essentially the act of human beings killing each other,” he said.