For Japanese, Obama's Hiroshima visit is historic – but complicated

Obama will tour Hiroshima's Peace Museum Friday, a move strongly supported by survivors of the first atomic bomb. But the trip has stirred up tough questions about how Japan treats its own history.

Shuji Kajiyama/AP
People gathered around the gutted Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan on Thursday. US President Obama will visit Friday.

As Japanese parse the meaning of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this Friday, virtually all agree it's historic. But that is where the consensus ​ends​.

The controversy in the United States over whether he would apologize for the bombs dropped in August 1945 over Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been answered unequivocally: He will not. But here in Japan, ​the event is being received with considerable skepticism, even as the city of 1.2 million prepares for Mr. Obama's tour of its Peace Memorial Museum – called "gut-wrenching" by Secretary of State John Kerry last month – and his speech near its cenotaph.

​Japan is acutely sensitive to its history as the only nation to have experienced the devastation of nuclear weapons. Memorial ceremonies take place every August and are broadcast solemnly on network television. Yet Obama's visit shines a spotlight on uncomfortable and potentially unanswerable questions about a deeper national identity crisis stemming from World War II: Was Japan primarily an aggressor or a victim?​ And if the president’s purpose is not to apologize, then what is it? 

The story wasn’t always so fraught. Japanese largely appreciated Obama's stated desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, an ambition for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2009, when Obama said he would like​ to visit Hiroshima, where 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly by the bomb, designer Issey Miyake, a Hiroshima native, penned an op-ed for The New York Times, revealing publicly for the first time his experience of the bomb at age 7, and the death of his mother three years later from radiation exposure. (To this day, Mr. Miyake walks with a limp from an injury sustained during the bombing.)

Miyake urged Obama to “walk across the Peace Bridge in Hiroshima” as “a symbolic step toward creating a world that knows no fear of a nuclear threat.”

“Miyake’s article, in my view, was the starting point of this Obama Hiroshima story,” says Norhiro Kato, a literary critic and former professor emeritus at Waseda University. “But now, nobody seems to remember it.”

The Japanese government was less enthusiastic. Wikileaks published a 2009 State Department cable in which Japan’s vice-minister for foreign affairs told John Roos – who became the first US ambassador to attend the annual commemoration in 2010 – that the proposed visit was a "nonstarter." The government feared that it would embolden both those opposed to the US-Japan military alliance and anti-nuclear groups. 

But on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender last summer, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially reiterated its stance that Japan would never demand a US apology for the atomic bombs, highlighting an even starker fear: that an apology from an American president could set off a domino effect of apologies, sending Japanese officials to places like Nanjing, the Philippines, and Seoul to atone for war crimes of their own.

Today, with China conducting ever more elaborate military maneuvers in the South China Sea, and North Korea boasting of enhanced nuclear capabilities, Mr. Abe is passing legislation to beef up Japan's own arsenal of defensive and offensive options. A key part of that effort involves bolstering its strategic alliance with the US.​

“The Abe administration welcomes Obama’s visit today as long as it is profitable for them,” says Mr. Kato, “especially for their upcoming elections. As long as it will do more good to them than harm, and not empower the domestic peace and anti-Abe, anti-US movements."

But, Kato notes, questions remain. "Is [Obama] going to connect the past with future plans for disarmament? Or is it the first step toward making an apology?" asks Kato. "If so, he should at least exhibit signs of this, even if he can’t do so explicitly. Right now, [his purpose] is so vague.”

Obama seems keen to keep it that way. In an interview with Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, the president said he didn’t know his agenda yet and hadn’t written his remarks. 

American peace activist Steven Leeper, a longtime Hiroshima resident who worked alongside former mayor Tadatoshi Akiba for several years as chairman of the city’s Peace Culture Foundation, believes that both sides are spinning the visit to serve their own political ends.

“I’m afraid that this is going to be used by the Abe administration as evidence of how the militarist changes he’s been making, the cabinet resolutions and secrecy laws, is bringing Japan so close to the US that the president is even willing to go to Hiroshima,” he says. “‘See how we are reconciling thanks to our military cooperation?’ So the whole thing becomes an advertisement for militarism, when it needs to be built instead on a more peaceful and goal-oriented anti-nuclear platform.”

The Obama administration has tacitly and sometimes openly supported Abe’s hawkish legislative actions, praising its ally for responding to the threat of terrorism by seeking to amend its war-renouncing constitution, and to​ the need for tighter security measures through the recently passed state secrets​ law, which enables​ the government to punish journalists or others who breach ​it​. 

“Obama, too, is saying we’re getting closer to Japan and putting an emphasis on that relationship,” he says, adding that “[the Hiroshima visit] is a win-win for both administrations."

At least one group in Japan is welcoming Obama with nearly unconditional gratitude. The hibakusha, survivors of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of whom suffer the effects of radiation-borne illnesses and are in their twilight years, have waited lifetimes to show an American president the damage inflicted by the bomb, in the hope that the US leader will convey their stories to the rest of the world. Many are referring to Obama’s visit as a "first step" in a long process of understanding and healing.

“For more than 70 years, the dignity of the actual victims of the nuclear weapons has been neglected,” says Kato.  “I think it is the primary duty of the Japanese government to preserve their human dignity, when the world community still cannot make clear the wrongfulness of atomic bombs, which cause the indiscriminate, disproportionate and direct death and suffering of civilians. So I can’t criticize the hibakusha for feeling optimistic about the first visit to Hiroshima by a US president as the first step toward restoring their dignity in the eyes of the world community.”

​For many hibakusha, the first visit to Hiroshima by a sitting US president is seen as a first step toward a nuclear-free future."My hope is that he will apologize to the victims," said Nagasaki survivor Terumi Tanaka in a video interview with the Associated Press, "not to the general public. Some of those who were directly affected are still alive, and there are many who are suffering. We have been asking for the abolishment of all nuclear weapons. If he says this, we will take it as his way of expressing an apology. The survivors are not asking for anything else."

Hiroshima's Michiko Kodama was seven years old when she was pulled from the rubble strewn across the city. "What's matters is what he does after he returns to his country," she told the AP. "I'm not sure what sort of message he will deliver [at Hiroshima]. But when he returns home after witnessing the impact of nuclear weapons, I hope he will use his remaining power to convey that the world should not possess nuclear weapons. That is what I hope to see."

For Mr. Leeper, what will matter most is a definitive statement about the horror of nuclear weapons. “What I hope and what might be possible and who I really think Obama is down deep, and if he really wants to help – he will say that nuclear weapons must never, ever be used, under any circumstances. If the president said that, it would be great. Just saying that, even if he can’t do anything about it.”

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