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Rumored U.S. presidential visit to Hiroshima, Nagasaki stokes mixed reactions

by

Staff Writer

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.

  • Brian Stump

    I wouldn’t allow him in the country if I were Japanese. Of course the amount of money he wastes it will be good for your economy.

    I’m just glad I’ll be leaving Nippon right before he arrives.

    • KietaZou

      And I will be glad you are as well.

  • Gordon

    I think that anyone (American, Russian, British, etc.) with their finger on the nuclear button should visit both places.

    • Matthew Brien Kenji Ota

      There are no buttons. To actually launch and ICBM takes a number of actions. The final one is to have two keys turned at the same time by two missileers.

  • Sharad Majumdar

    Obama’s legacy is one of rebuilding relationships and burying long-held ill-will. i think this would a great opportunity to rise above politics and speak frankly about the genocidal acts of brutality committed by both sides, which must never be repeated.

    • tonepolice

      I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think the situation coming from Abe’s camp makes that a bit impossible, and out of Obama’s hands.

    • tonepolice

      I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think the situation coming from Abe’s camp makes that a bit impossible, and out of Obama’s hands.

  • JimmyJM

    The study of history is important when articles such as this are composed. I’d venture to say that more than 90% of the Japanese people and more than 95% of the people of the WWII allied countries do not know about “ketsu-go”. Before making a knee-jerk judgement as to whether the atomic bombings were necessary, everyone should learn what the military government of Japan at that time was planning. If everyone knew about “ketsu-go”, the current government would not be able to revise that part of history and play the victim card.

    • Philosopher

      Perhaps you should explain what ketsu-go is then.

      • Matthew Brien Kenji Ota

        Operation Ketsugo was a plan by the Japanese government to make the invasion cost of the Allies so high as to make it undesirable. They assumed this would lead to an armistice instead of total surrender.

      • Philosopher

        Thank you!

      • JimmyJM

        An excellent summary by Mr. Ota. I recommend John Dower’s books including Embracing Defeat. Richard Frank also covers it very well. Wikipedia also has a good article on ketsu-go. Prior to the atomic bombings, the Allies planned on invading the home islands. The Japanese military upper echelon wasn’t blind to this and prepared to receive the invasion. Some even wanted the entire population of Japan sacrificed as “Japan could never live under foreign domination”. After the war, interrogators interviewing high ranked Japanese officials said “these guys had us figured out”. The Japanese military had determined where and when the invasions would take place, not from spies but from logic and an understanding of the way the Allied high command thought. An invasion would have been very costly to both sides with more than one million casualties each. Despite the horror of the atomic bombings, they actually saved lives as the Emperor was inclined to go along with ketsu-go until then.

      • Philosopher

        Thank you for your comprehensive explanation.

      • JimmyJM

        An excellent summary by Mr. Ota. I recommend John Dower’s books including Embracing Defeat. Richard Frank also covers it very well. Wikipedia also has a good article on ketsu-go. Prior to the atomic bombings, the Allies planned on invading the home islands. The Japanese military upper echelon wasn’t blind to this and prepared to receive the invasion. Some even wanted the entire population of Japan sacrificed as “Japan could never live under foreign domination”. After the war, interrogators interviewing high ranked Japanese officials said “these guys had us figured out”. The Japanese military had determined where and when the invasions would take place, not from spies but from logic and an understanding of the way the Allied high command thought. An invasion would have been very costly to both sides with more than one million casualties each. Despite the horror of the atomic bombings, they actually saved lives as the Emperor was inclined to go along with ketsu-go until then.

    • Philosopher

      Perhaps you should explain what ketsu-go is then.

  • AJ

    It will be interesting to see the narrative that Obama uses if he visits the sites. It seems clear the Japanese want him to acknowledge their perspective, that dropping the atomic bombs were all but war crimes and wrong such that Japan is a victim of the war.

    I don’t think the Japanese will react well when Obama falls back on the American narrative, that dropping the atomic bomb was tragic but necessary to end a war that Japan started, that dropping the atomic bombs were all but acts of mercy to spare both American soldiers and Japanese from the excesses of a much harsher war. It’s totally justifiable that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t see the atomic bombs as acts of mercy, but Obama should not and almost certainly will not cast the desired narrative of Japan as a victim of the war.

  • incumbent

    It’s unlikely that any Japanese government would welcome the visit, so if it occurs it would be on the insistence of the U.S. Hiroshima is so central to the postwar narrative Japan spins that a visit risks upsetting the apple cart, and that is why it has been shied away from in the past.

    The narrative that the bomb was dropped to save the lives of invading Allied soldiers has undergone serious revision. Scholars have acknowledged that casualties incurred during the invasion of the Ryuku kingdom — never an historical part of the Japanese homeland — would not have been indicative of the casualties to be incurred during an invasion of the main islands. It is highly likely that little resistance would have been offered. By the end of the war, Japanese were sick and tired of the Emperor, and many felt it to be a great injustice that his life was sparred by the Allied occupation.

    However, the revision is a two-edged sword. Now it is thought that the bombs were likely dropped to impress the Russians, and affect the subsequent balance of world power. Russia was poised to invade the home islands from the North, and were on the brink of doing so that fateful day in August. Had the bomb not been used, it is quite likely that a US invasion from the South would have met a USSR invasion from the North, resulting in a Japan partitioned like Korea or Vietnam. Faced with such an option, conservative Japanese would no doubt opt for the status quo.

  • Matthew Brien Kenji Ota

    IF Obama visits Hiroshima then the Prime Minister of Japan should visit the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

  • http://lesstalkmoreactivism.blogspot.com/ Canaan

    Revisionism wouldn’t stop Obama. Re Imperial Japan, the U.S.has been just as revisionist as the Japanese government. Anti-Japan propaganda has vanished from American popular culture.

    By contrast, American culture is still loaded with anti-Nazi propaganda. Nazis are viewed as the lowest of the low. The ‘Hitler’ card is played constantly in U.S. politics. The Ayatollah is Hitler. Saddam Hussein was Hitler. To the American Left, Bush was Hitler, now Trump is Hitler. To the American Right, Obama is both Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s doormat, Neville Chamberlain.

    And there’s still a hangover of Cold War anti-communist propaganda.

    But most Baby Boomers have never been exposed to residual anti-Japan propaganda. Pearl Harbor is remembered, of course, but Americans don’t associate Japan with war crimes. Unlike the Nazis and Communists, wartime Japan is viewed more as a ‘formidable adversary.’

    The whitewashing of Imperial Japan is U.S. policy, starting in the Potsdam Declaration, which exonerated the Emperor and the nation, dumping all the blame on “self-willed military advisors.” “Self-willed” is a curious phrase. It’s not a common American usage, and I don’t think that individualist Americans would even hear it as a perjorative. But it sounds like it might be quite a nasty insult deliberately tailored to the Japanese ear: kattekimama — self-absorbed, anti-social, against the common good, faithless, and most of all, separate from the true Japan.

  • Matthew Brien Kenji Ota

    The problem with most people is that they do not look at the atomic bombings with the context of the times. For one thing, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 129,000 people. The firebombing of Tokyo killed more….200,000 people. But it is forgotten.

    The alternative to the bombing campaign was Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan. This would have resulted in many more casualties on both sides and compounded misery in Japan.

    People should study history in context, and not base their convictions on contemporary morality.

    • Aiden

      My favorite word you just used is “context”.