U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that he will visit Hiroshima on May 27 following the Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit was welcomed by a variety of people in Japan and the United States on Wednesday.
Attention has turned to what he will say and do at the site of the world’s first atomic bombing, and whether the visit by the first ever sitting U.S. president will be viewed as a de facto apology.
A diplomatic source said Obama may lay flowers, visit the Peace Memorial Museum and make a short speech or statement in which he calls for nuclear disarmament.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that there were a lot of opinions about the trip in the U.S., but that Obama would visit Hiroshima’s Peace Park and offer his own reflections to the people of that city.
“The president certainly does understand that the U.S. bears a special responsibility. The U.S. continues to be the only country to have used nuclear weapons, and it means that our country bears a special responsibility to lead the world in an effort to eliminate them. This is a goal that has been sought by Democratic and Republican presidents,” Earnest said.
He said it remains to be seen if Obama will have a chance to meet hibakusha atomic bomb survivors during the visit.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday welcomed Obama’s decision, but he stopped short of commenting on historical issues related to World War II to avoid a diplomatic row with the United States.
“What hibakusha want is no repeat of the calamity the atomic bombings caused,” Suga told a daily news conference, referring to survivors of the 1945 destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Tokyo believes Obama’s visit is intended to “send a strong message toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” he added.
The Obama administration has been weighing a visit ever since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month set foot in Hiroshima for a G-7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
“I welcome President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima from the bottom of my heart,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will accompany Obama to Hiroshima, said Tuesday evening.
Also on Wednesday, the Nikkei financial newspaper reported that Abe may visit Pearl Harbor in November in a symbolic gesture to cement Japan’s alliance with the U.S., quoting an unnamed government source.
Suga said the government is not currently considering such a trip, but he added: “I don’t know about the future.”
The apparent government leak to the Nikkei may be a trial balloon by Abe to test reactions in Japan and the U.S.
Discussing historical issues relating to the U.S. atomic bombings or Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is a potential minefield for Abe, who has centered most of his diplomatic and military policies on Japan’s ties with the United States.
Abe and Suga have repeatedly dodged questions over whether Tokyo will seek an apology for the bombings, which killed at least 140,000 people in Hiroshima and another 74,000 in Nagasaki.
On Tuesday Abe only said that Obama made a “grave decision” to visit Hiroshima, and on Wednesday Suga went only as far as saying Obama’s plan will be “a historic opportunity to give momentum” to the effort for a world without nuclear weapons.
Asked if Japan expects Obama’s visit will be future-oriented and not focused on historical issues, Suga said he believes Obama will come to Hiroshima harboring such a hope.
Tobias Harris, a Japanese politics specialist at Washington-based risk advisory service Teneo Intelligence, said Obama is likely to focus on the suffering of the victims.
“Surely he can’t go to Hiroshima and discuss the atomic bombing in passive voice, as if it were some kind of natural disaster?” Harris said. “I do expect that he’ll have to discuss the suffering — and therefore the humanity — of America’s victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which certain sections of American political opinion will criticize as an apology, but I don’t think he’ll go so far as to question the necessity of the decision or, for that matter, offer a lengthy defense of the U.S. decision to drop the bomb.”
Richard Samuels, director of the Japan Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the Obama visit will create strong reactions in two constituencies in particular.
“In Japan, it is the Japanese right which has spun up the narrative of ‘Japan as victim.’ They will insist that an Obama visit is vindication of that view. The other is the American right, which will bark about an Obama apology tour, without regard for what he actually says or does in Hiroshima. They will try to agitate the veteran’s community and survivors of the POW camps,” Samuels said.
“Neither is a reason to avoid the visit. Obama has the opportunity to acknowledge the past and to remind the world how important it is to take responsibility for the horrors of war into our respective civic cultures. And in so doing, he will be pointing his metaphorical finger right back at Japan, which has often failed to do this,” Samuels added.
How surviving veterans in the U.S. will view the visit is of special concern to Obama. Jan Thompson, President of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, welcomed the visit but said it should not void the full history of Hiroshima.
“This history is first and foremost about the most devastating war in world history where more noncombatants died than combatants. It is about American and Allied soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who fought for peace in Asia,” Thompson said. “It is about a war started by Japan, and for the visit to be solely aspirational and focused on nuclear weapons avoids the hard truths of what it means to fight for freedom and released from tyrannical militarist regime.”
Although there will be no formal apology by Obama for the bombing and the Japanese government has said none is being sought, some Japanese feel such words are necessary.
Organizers of a May 21 meeting in Hiroshima seeking an apology are asking Obama to use his remaining time in office to take responsibility for the bombing, even as they are also calling on the Japanese government to accept Japan’s responsibility for waging war.
“We seek public recognition that Obama will in Hiroshima, as president, clearly recognize the criminality of mass, indiscriminate slaughter using atomic weapons, have the U.S. take responsibility, and apologize to the victims of the atomic bomb,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday evening. “At the same time, the Japanese government and the Abe administration should sincerely accept Japan’s war responsibility and apologize, as well as offer a just compensation to victims of Japan’s aggression.”
The city of Hiroshima itself is not seeking an apology. On Wednesday, the city established a task force to prepare for Obama’s visit. Yoshifumi Ishida, head of the task force, said that, fundamentally, it was hoped the U.S. president would do two things.
“We want him to meet with the hibakusha and listen to their personal stories and memories of August 6th, 1945. In addition, we also hope that Obama will build on his speech that he made in Prague in 2009 and work hard to eliminate nuclear weapons,” Ishida said.
Information from Kyodo added
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