Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.09.04

Will President Obama Visit Hiroshima And Nagasaki?

As to whether President Obama will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki during his presidency, John Roos, Ambassador to Japan, said at his final press conference, on August 8, before his departure from Japan, "I have no doubt in the sincerity of his words, that he would be honored to do so during his presidency." Ambassador Roos was the first U.S. Ambassador to visit Hiroshima, in 2010, and then Nagasaki, in 2012, and he has attended annual commemoration ceremonies for the victims of the atomic bombs almost every year.

At the press conference, Ambassador Roos revealed, "The president was fully supportive of my going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Immediately after his inauguration in 2009, President Obama actively began trying to eliminate nuclear weapons, stating that, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to take action. This past June in Berlin, he called for the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed nuclear warheads to 1,000 -1,100 each.

A visit by the President of the United States to the two cities that were devastated by U.S. atomic bombs would be groundbreaking. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ambassador Roos's comments, which implied that a visit might be highly probable, attracted much attention in Japan.

The visits will be by no means easy. Neither Japan nor the United States has been able to transcend the experiences of World War II and its aftermath. In the U.S., a strong sentiment persists against negative views regarding the U.S. use of atomic bombs on Japan, and, moreover, prevailing sentiment is that such use was necessary to end the war. The Japanese viewpoint is that the killing of a large number of civilians through a military attack is intolerable; however, U.S. public opinion is quite different on this point as well.

In addition, the U.S. dreads the thought of a nuclear-armed Japan. This concern is hard for the Japanese to comprehend, but the U.S. fear has manifested itself on various occasions. Back in 1990, when the then-Commander of U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa described American troops as the "cork in the bottle" to prevent revived Japanese militarism, quite a controversy resulted. Since then, comments have recurred expressing a fear of Japan's remilitarization or nuclearization; they indicate the extent to which this kind of thinking is deep-rooted in the U.S. One can say that it reflects that the U.S. still has not been able to break away from post-WWII attitudes.

Under such circumstances, the consequences of a visit by the President of the United States to the cities where atomic bombs were dropped might result in political controversy in the U.S. Some suspect that he would be expected to apologize. Despite these various factors, President Obama is seriously considering visiting the two cities.

Those of us in Japan should support President Obama's efforts. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are ready to have a U.S. President visit. This would be not only to settle accounts about the past, but also because the President of the United States would want to squarely face the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and take affirmative steps to eliminate them. At a symposium, I heard a high school student state that it is not the intention of the bombed two cities to ask for an apology from the U.S. President.

Each time Ambassador Roos visits the two cities, he says that the experience is "incredibly powerful and moving" and that "everyone in the world should visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Complex sentiments seem to be embedded in these comments.

I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with a former high level official from the U.S. State Department. After the visit, I noticed that he was looking at me with horror. He was shocked at the devastation he had just seen, and he was holding his breath for fear that I may say something emotional after seeing the same exhibition. I felt that his eyes revealed not merely horror, but also desperate helplessness. They were the eyes of a person who expresses regret and bows his head for the terrible, unaccountable deed.

For the President of the United States to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to pray for those who lost their lives from the nuclear bombs, and to pray for everlasting international peace would be deeply meaningful. It will help "the United States and Japan, as the only country to have dropped the atomic bomb and the only country to have suffered the effects of an atomic bomb (Ambassador Roos)" to be closer, and it will also contribute to the U.S. transcending its post-WWII dilemma. But, more importantly, it will be an opportunity for the President of the United States, while present at the locations devastated by the atomic bombs, to contemplate what nuclear weapons have brought, and meant, to the human race, while noting their significance for nuclear deterrence. This would be much more meaningful than attending international conferences where the topics are the elimination of nuclear weapons or the deterrence of nuclear proliferation.