OSAKA – Reports that the White House is considering a visit to Hiroshima by U.S. President Barack Obama before or after the Group of Seven Summit in May are creating excitement and concern about how it will be perceived and whether such a visit would move the U.S.-Japan relationship forward.
In April 2009, Obama gave a speech in Prague in which he called for a world without nuclear weapons. Since then, Japanese peace activists, nonproliferation experts, and officials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have pushed for him to become the first sitting U.S. president to pay his respects at one or both cities.
The highest ranking sitting U.S. official to go to Hiroshima was then U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, third in line to the presidency, who visited in 2008.
In November 2009, following a meeting with then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in Tokyo, Obama said it would be “meaningful” if he could visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A leaked U.S. embassy cable, published by Wikileaks, later revealed that the Japanese government had opposed a visit to Hiroshima at the time on the grounds it would be premature.
Satoko Oka Norimatsu, who heads the Vancouver-based Peace Philosophy Center and works with peace groups in Japan, said the president should go.
“The people of Hiroshima/Nagasaki would welcome Obama. I’ve already heard many ‘love calls’, in the Japanese usage, from peace activist communities, hibakusha communities, student groups, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying Obama would not have to apologize when he came,” she said.
But Mindy Kotler, an expert on the “comfort women” issue and founder of Asia Policy Point, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that researches Japan, says an Obama visit would end up being used by historical revisionists in Japan to promote their own agenda.
“Obama sees (a visit) as putting World War II behind us, and as an honest strike against nuclear proliferation,” she said. “However, it is neither. A visit to Hiroshima will reward the Abe administration for bad behavior, emboldening them to continue revising their history as one of victimization by the West. It’s an acceptance of Abe’s revanchism. (The visit) will be viewed, no matter what Obama says, as an apology,” Kotler said.
Some U.S. veterans groups have also expressed concern that if U.S. leaders pay too much attention to Hiroshima, it will come at the expense of Japan’s conduct in the war.
On March 3, in a statement for the record to a joint hearing of the U.S. House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, touched on the issue.
“We suggest that if President Obama or his successor were to visit Hiroshima, the trip would be inappropriate without, first, the memorialization (sic) of POWs at the port of Moji, where most of the ‘hell ships’ docked and unloaded their sick and dying ‘human cargo’, and a remembrance for the POWs at the UNESCO World Industrial Heritage sites where so many toiled and died,” Thompson said in prepared remarks.
Attitudes in the U.S. about the use of the atomic bombs are changing as the World War II era grows more distant.
An April 2015 survey of 1,000 people by nonpartisan U.S. think tank the Pew Research Center showed that 56 percent of Americans believed that the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was justified, while 34 percent said it was not.
In Japan, the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,000 people on the same question. Only 14 percent of the Japanese respondents said the bombing was justified, versus 79 percent who said it was not.