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The anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki always evokes frustrations among the Japanese people. This was especially true of the latest anniversary — the 55th and the last of this century. The reason is simple: The goal of a nuclear arms-free world seems distant even as the new century approaches.

Memories of the tragedies have faded steadily with the passage of time. Whenever August comes around, Japanese newspapers and magazines feature articles and photos showing what a horrific means of mass murder nuclear weapons are. TV and radio programs also focus on the tragic fate that struck the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. All were intended to be a recurring warning against tragedies caused by nuclear weapons. Yet, such efforts are a thing of the past.

There are several reasons. For one thing, the threat of impending nuclear war disappeared with the end of the East-West confrontation. At home, the number of “hibakusha,” atomic bomb victims, has continued to fall, from a peak of a little over 372,000 in 1980 to 297,613 in March this year.

A 1996 poll of schoolchildren in Hiroshima found that 45 percent knew the date and time of the bombing — down 17 points from a decade earlier. Still, the poll speaks for the active role the prefecture is playing in “peace education.” Perhaps fewer children in other prefectures know the exact date the bomb was dropped, still less the date Nagasaki was bombed. To many people abroad, the disasters are simply a nonevent. According to a Gallup poll taken in the same year, one in four Americans did not even know that the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japan.

With the number of hibakusha — living witnesses to the atomic bombings — falling steadily, we must make sure that memories of the tragedies are handed down correctly to future generations. That is an essential step toward realizing the dream of a nuclear-free world in the 21st century.

The frustrations felt by many Japanese stem partly from the equivocal nature of the government’s nonnuclear policy. Japan is protected by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” under a bilateral security treaty. At the same time, Japan is committed to the three nonnuclear principles that place a total ban on the development, possession and introduction of nuclear weapons.

Logically, a policy that relies on nuclear protection is incompatible with the nonnuclear policy, particularly the principle of nonintroduction of weapons. A full guarantee of nuclear protection is taken to mean that Japan will have to allow nuclear arms into its own territory, if need be. In fact, various testimonies and confidential documents indicate that nuclear weapons have been brought into Japan in the past, though the government has denied all such allegations.

This ambiguity in Japan’s nonnuclear policy creates the impression that the nation is not as enthusiastic about eliminating nuclear weapons as it professes to be. At a recent conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Japan made an eight-point proposal, including an early conclusion of a treaty making Central Asia a nuclear-free zone. But the proposal said nothing about denuclearizing East Asia, including Japan.

The challenge for Japanese policymakers is to reaffirm the three nonnuclear principles, particularly that of nonintroduction, in ways that will convince skeptics here and abroad. To give full credibility to these national commitments Japan must make serious efforts to develop an East Asian security framework that does not depend on U.S. nuclear protection.

Another challenge for Japan as the world’s only and first atomic-bombed nation is to unify its politically divided movement against atomic and hydrogen bombs. In the 1960s, the campaign split into three rivals groups, each insisting on its own way to lead the nonnuclear drive. It is unfortunate that the movement has remained divided in spite of its common goal.

The division has had ripple effects abroad, taking some steam out of the antinuclear campaign by foreign victims of nuclear test explosions, who reportedly receive overlapping support from the feuding groups in Japan. Attendance at the “down with the bomb” international conference that is held here every summer has also reflected competing political influences. These rival forces should be consolidated into a common citizens’ movement against nuclear weapons.

Under the present circumstances, humanity has no viable choice but to continue these patient and depoliticized efforts to rid the world of the most destructive and most inhuman weapons humankind has ever produced.

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