HIROSHIMA – U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima Friday, the first ever by a sitting American president, received mixed reviews among some experts Saturday. While the gesture itself was widely lauded and appreciated in Japan and overseas, its substance — particularly Obama’s remarks — left some observers disappointed on both sides of the Pacific.
In the meantime, what, if any, political gain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who accompanied Obama, might get out of the visit is likely to be short-lived as he moves on Monday to a host of controversial domestic issues ranging from whether to postpone an unpopular consumption tax hike for a second time, to the simmering tensions in Okinawa caused by a recent murder linked to a U.S. civilian employee.
As the substance of Obama’s speech was more closely examined Saturday by both Americans and Japanese, disappointment was heard in some quarters.
“The Hiroshima visit was an amazing, historic moment, and a powerful, emotional experience. The symbolism of it was very, very important and enduring. The content, however, was much more disappointing,” said Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, who is an expert on the dropping of the atomic bomb and one of over 70 scholars and activists who recently called on Obama to offer an apology for it.
“Obama had the opportunity for greatness, but he achieved mediocrity. He should have given his 2009 Prague speech in Hiroshima because the message he did deliver yesterday was lofty in principle, but did not live up to the requirements of the moment,” Kuznick said.
Kuznick added that he and the other scholars knew Obama was not going to apologize but that it was important to establish the principle. The scholars also asked Obama to deal with the history of the decisions that led to the atomic bomb’s use.
“In his speech Friday, Obama talked about the war coming to a brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s one of the major myths of World War II, that the atomic bombs ended the war. It was the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on Aug. 9, 1945, that ended the war, and the U.S. could have ended it earlier if we’d have let the Japanese know they could keep the Emperor,” he said.
Finally, there was the issue of America’s own nuclear arsenal. Many, including Kuznick, had hoped Obama might announce specific ways in which the U.S. would reduce its arsenal and strengthen nuclear disarmament efforts in other countries. While the president spoke about America’s nuclear weapons, he did so vaguely.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, agreed that there was historical significance to visiting Hiroshima. But he added that people in Japan were being a bit too soft on the speech he gave. That could be, he suggested, due to the fact that whatever people in Japan might now think of Obama as a president, he might look very good in about six months.
“Everybody in Japan knows that Donald Trump could be the next U.S. president, so we might as well enjoy Obama while he lasts,” Nakano said.
What Obama should have done, he added, was spell out how the world should learn from history of the atomic bomb.
“Obama should have stated what lesson we are clearly to learn by that atrocious and inhumane act. Lacking a concrete plan for achieving a nuclear-free world, we in Japan may have confirmed that we kind of like Obama personally,” Nakano said. “But there’s no plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”
And despite his week on the world stage, whether the G-7 summit and Obama’s visit will favorably impact Abe’s fortunes politically, especially in the upcoming Upper House election and potential simultaneous Lower House election, remains to be seen. This week, Abe is expected to make a final decision on whether to go through with the second stage of the consumption tax hike in April 2017.
Nakano as well as some other commentators suggested Saturday that this decision is likely to affect his political future more than the Obama visit.
The prime minister will also have to deal with the Okinawa prefectural elections next weekend amid growing frustration among residents over the murder of Rina Shimabukuro earlier this month, who was allegedly killed by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a civilian employee at the U.S. Kadena Air Base.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party had hoped its preferred candidates could capture a majority of seats now held by lawmakers opposed to the contentious relocation plan for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko, further north.
But the murder case and Obama’s visit led to calls within Okinawa, even among supporters of the Henoko plan, for Abe to initiate discussions with the U.S. to revise the Status of Forces Agreement to give Okinawan authorities more autonomy and authority to investigate crimes allegedly committed by U.S. military and civilian workers.