Sunao Tsuboi does not remember seeing the explosion, or feeling anything, despite being just 1 kilometer away from Ground Zero over 70 years ago when the Americans detonated an atomic bomb in the sky over Hiroshima, only that his body was severely burned and covered in blood.
Still, at 20 years of age, Tsuboi was one of the lucky ones as half of all individuals who were within a 1.2-km radius of the epicenter of the explosion did not survive the attack, having died that day. The bomb killed an estimated 140,000 people, including some who lived through the initial blast but perished soon after due to severe radiation exposure.
Tsuboi, 90, who has undergone 12 operations since, said he had a hard time landing employment or getting married due to die-hard discrimination against hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors). Yet the retired school principal said that most hibakusha, including himself, hold no grudge against the United States.
“I am very grateful that the Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting will be held in Hiroshima, and dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, will see the reality of the atomic bomb attack,” said Tsuboi, who now co-chairs the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, better known in Japan as Hidankyo. “But this is only a start for the world to move forward, to entirely give up nuclear weapons.”
For hibakusha like Tsuboi, the foreign ministers’ meeting, which kicks off Sunday in Hiroshima, carries a symbolic meaning as it offers an opportunity for world leaders to be reminded once again of the horrors of nuclear weapons. The meeting will cover a range of topics such as terrorism and maritime security in addition to nuclear disarmament. There are also scheduled discussions on North Korea, the Middle East, and Ukraine.
One of the biggest goals for Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, whose constituency is Hiroshima, is to adopt the Hiroshima Declaration, which seeks a world free of nuclear weapons. But he will face a huge test of his ability to coordinate the wording of the statement to be released at the end of the two-day conference as nuclear powers such as the U.S., Britain and France remain ambivalent toward disarmament.
The meeting also comes at a time when global cooperation on nuclear disarmament is at its lowest point. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference last year failed to reach a consensus due to differences between nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers. While the Iranian nuclear deal framework agreed to last year was a positive step, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have recently escalated, and the potential transfer of nuclear arsenals to terrorist or extremist organizations such as the Islamic State group is greater than ever.
During the meeting, foreign ministers including Kerry will visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and lay floral tributes at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In the past, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy have visited the A-bomb museum, but this will be a first for a U.S. secretary of state.
Yet Americans have mixed reactions against Kerry’s planned visit.
More than 2,600 comments were posted to an AFP story that reported the visit, many of which reacted to a part the story that said: “Washington has never apologized for the attacks” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many commented no apology is needed and that Japanese leaders were responsible for the war.
Nevertheless, a survey by the Pew Research Center carried out last year, which asked whether dropping atomic bombs on Japan was justified, showed that American views have also shifted over the past 70 years. In 1945, immediately after the bombings, a Gallup Poll found 85 percent of Americans approved of the nuclear attacks. But the Pew survey last year found 56 percent of Americans believe the use of the bombs was justified, while 34 percent said no.
Many people in Hiroshima hope Kerry’s visit will lay the groundwork for a potential visit by President Barack Obama, who in 2009, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
The government, given the domestic sentiment in the U.S., has likewise been cautious. A secret cable published by Wikileaks has revealed that in September 2009, Japan did not think it was a good idea for Obama to visit Hiroshima or apologize for the U.S. over the bombings.
Still, the White House is reportedly considering a possible Obama visit to the city when he attends the G-7 Summit next month in Ise-Shima, Mie Prefecture.
“If not this time, it’s possible that Obama will make a visit after November’s U.S. presidential election or after he leaves office,” said Asuka Matsumoto, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Obama advanced his vision with last year’s Iranian nuclear deal, which was struck between Tehran and world powers. Still, more than 90 percent of all nuclear warheads are held by the United States and Russia.
“Obama still has the time to try to build on his work to reduce the number of nuclear weapons,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The president’s possible visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in May would be a tremendously important and historic opportunity to underscore why nuclear weapons should never be used.”
Meantime, Japan has also made efforts to eradicate nuclear weapons by way of signing and ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, which the U.S. is yet to ratify. Yet the country, the only one that has ever suffered a nuclear attack, is also in a unique position. As America’s biggest ally in Asia, it is a beneficiary of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which is crucial for Japan at a time where North Korea is escalating tensions in the region through the pursuit of its own nuclear ambition.
At a meeting of a United Nations working group on nuclear disarmament in February, Japanese Ambassador Toshio Sano said adopting a nuclear ban treaty is still premature given the security situation and because the countries who possess nuclear weapons did not take part.
Kishida has repeatedly maintained Tokyo’s position that it will take “realistic and pragmatic measures” to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.
While the foreign minister hopes to revive momentum for nuclear disarmament by having nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers agree to a joint declaration, it is unclear if the statement will mention the “inhumane aspect of nuclear weapons.” Last year, when Japan proposed a U.N. resolution including that wording, the U.S., Britain and France abstained from casting votes.
“Japan can be a coordinator between non-nuclear powers and nuclear powers,” said Hideaki Shinoda, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “Yet, it is unlikely that the declaration will refer to a nuclear ban given the circumstances.”