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An American's key role as Hiroshima commemorates atomic bombing (+video)

Steven Leeper oversees Hiroshima's commemoration of the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of the atomic bomb. The US presence at the memorial ceremony has grown, with even President Truman's grandson in attendance this year.

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“Having a father who lived and died heroically in Japan has helped me enormously,” says Leeper now.  “His legacy gave me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

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At 17, Leeper returned to Japan and met his future wife, Elizabeth, another American child of missionaries who was fluent in the language and culture.

Leeper worked for the Japanese automobile industry in the bubble-era 1980s as a consultant, helping mega-companies like Toyota and Nissan erect American operations. In his 40s, he encountered the work of Hiroshima survivor Moritaki Ichiro on the sheer madness of nuclear weaponry, and he became particularly moved by stories of children who fled the flames of the bomb while their parents died in the city behind them. 

Leeper now has a riverside house in Atlanta, where his wife and in-laws live. But when he was called up by Akiba in 2001, he had an epiphany. “The auto industry is always concerned with environmental problems. What I realized when Akiba-san asked me to get involved, was that all the environmental worries about climate, resources, population – they mean nothing if we are still at war with one another, and nothing at all if we can destroy one another with these insane weapons.”

Progress has been limited at best. Hostile rhetoric between Iran and Israel has deepened over concerns about the intent of Iran's nuclear program; Pakistan and India thrust and parry; and North Korea remains a nuclear question mark in Asia.  

A hopeful quest

But Leeper is hopeful. He cites the introduction of a concept – "the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons" – consecrated in Switzerland earlier this year, as a slap in the face to the hoary notion of "deterrence" (i.e., having more nukes than your neighbor will keep the peace), and a meager step toward global disarmament.

“Perversely, the fact that these weapons are more powerful and more accessible than ever has made the biggest players [the United States and Russia] realize that they need to be destroyed. The big powers don’t want to see the world end, but smaller players, like Al Qaeda, just might.”

The paradox of an American leading Hiroshima’s devotion to peace is irrelevant to Leeper, who sees the next five years as “a nuclear emergency,” critical to the survival of the human race.

“Visitors from all over the world are surprised by an American leading the peace mission in Hiroshima,” he says. “But it’s not irony. It’s me being an embodiment of the fact that Hiroshima is not pursuing the road of retribution, but the path of reconciliation. I am that reality. That's what Mayor Akiba said, and that’s the reason he put me here.”

For more on Stephen Leeper and Hiroshima, see this recent documentary film

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