Home > NEWSROOM TOKYO > Feature Reports > Obama to Visit Hiroshima

Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Obama to Visit Hiroshima

May 11, 2016

The White House has announced that US President Barack Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, one of 2 cities devastated by US atomic bombs in 1945.

About 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima after the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city in August 1945.

Obama will head to Hiroshima after the conclusion of the Group of Seven Summit hosted by Japan later this month.

"The president intends to visit to send a much more forward-looking signal about his ambition for realizing the goal of a planet without nuclear weapons," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Earnest stressed that the visit should not be viewed as an apology for the bomb.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that he will accompany Obama.

"I have decided to visit Hiroshima with President Obama on the 27th of this month, after the Ise-Shima Summit. I welcome President Obama's visit to Hiroshima from the bottom of my heart," Abe said.

Abe said he hopes it will be a chance for Japan and the US to jointly mourn the victims.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Obama's visit is an important and historic step that will build momentum for achieving a nuclear-free world.

Survivors have been waiting for decades for this moment.

Keiko Ogura was a child of 8 when the bomb was dropped over 70 years ago. She has devoted much of her life to sharing her experiences with people from around the world who come to her city.

"I am so happy, all the survivors are very, very happy -- long-cherishing desire or wish to have him," Ogura says.

Ogura hopes she'll get the chance to meet Obama in person.

"We want him to just come and to stand this place, to comfort the souls here, they died in vain," she says.

Survivors have long been urging world leaders to work together to do away with nuclear weapons completely.

Sunao Tsuboi is a leader of a survivors' group that has been calling for a presidential visit for years.

"I want to welcome Obama and ask him to do his utmost to abolish all nuclear arms," Tsuboi says.

He says he simply wants Obama to pay tribute to the victims -- an apology isn't necessary.

Many Hiroshima residents are also welcoming Obama's decision.

"I want Obama to realize what really happened here and send a message to the world," one man says.

"I want him to understand how many lives were taken by the bomb and to pray for a peaceful world without nuclear war," says a female resident.

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui has expressed support for Obama's visit, saying the decision to come is based on reason and a sense of conscience.

Matsui said on Tuesday that he hopes the visit will strengthen Obama's commitment to creating a nuclear-free world, and that other world leaders will follow his example.

Reactions from outside Japan have been mixed, as people in the United States and elsewhere respond to the planned visit.

US House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who visited Hiroshima as House Speaker in 2008, praised the move. She described it as a historic decision and a great testimony to Obama's bold and principled leadership.

Lee Zeldin, a lawmaker from the Republican Party, which holds a majority in the Senate, criticized the visit, blasting it as part of a "global apology tour."

US veterans' organization The American Legion said the group is heartened that the White House has promised the president will not apologize for the attack. The group said it would never be appropriate to apologize for the bombing.

The United Nations also welcomed the visit. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Hiroshima in 2010.

"The secretary-general very much welcomes the decision by the US president to visit Hiroshima when he goes later this month, or soon, when he goes on his trip to Asia," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. "For the secretary-general, one of the enduring lessons of Hiroshima is the need to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the US atomic bombings thoroughly destroyed the illusion created by Japanese militarism, but they also inflicted many civilian casualties.

"The pain suffered by them definitely deserves sympathy," Lu Kang said.

He also said the purpose of Japan arranging for a foreign dignitary to visit Hiroshima should be to speak out against the path of militarism.

Hideaki Shinoda, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Can you say a few words about President Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima?

Shinoda: It's definitely going to be an historic moment. President Obama’s visit would have been impossible before Secretary Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima in April. So there have been many, many steps to prepare for this visit. But the nature of President Obama’s visit is completely different. In many ways, it's going to be a very historic moment and politically very significant.

Beppu: What in particular do think would be good for Obama to do in Hiroshima?

Shinoda: Number one on the agenda is a possible meeting with hibakusha, or the survivors. I'm sure that it is going to be very, very politically sensitive and challenging for him to meet the survivors, or hibakusha. Quite frankly, there is no need to organize any dialogue or discussions. Only if he can create one occasion to receive the survivors' sincere messages of their support for nuclear abolishment, it would dramatically enhance the significance of his visit to Hiroshima.

Obama's Road to Hiroshima

President Obama began his first term in office with a commitment to seek a nuclear-free world. And he expressed an interest in visiting Hiroshima.

Shortly afterward, he addressed a crowd of over 20,000 in the Czech Republic capital of Prague.

"So today I state clearly, with conviction, the US’s commitment to seek peace and security, and a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said. "As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the US has the moral responsibility to act. We can’t succeed in this effort alone. But we can lead it. We can start it."

The Prague speech was made in April of 2009. That December, Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Obama spoke with NHK that same year, he expressed interest in visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are etched in the mind of the world. I would be honored to visit those cities at some point during my presidency," Obama said.

But the itineraries for his past 3 trips to Japan did not include either city. The White House explained that there simply wasn't enough time.

More recently, Obama's efforts to eradicate nuclear arms have stalled. Conflict in Ukraine has strained relations between the US and Russia, the world's largest nuclear powers.

However, Obama's administration has made some gestures. In 2010, John Roos became the first active US ambassador to Japan to attend Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Ceremony.

More recently, it has been attended by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller.

In April, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Atomic Bomb Dome to commemorate the victims.

"Everyone should visit Hiroshima, everyone means everyone. So I hope one day the president of the United States will be among the everyone who is able to come here," Kerry said. "I promise you, when I get back to Washington Tuesday night, and I see the president this week, I will certainly convey to him what I saw here, and how important it is at some point to try to get here."

US media seconded Kerry. The influential New York Times and Washington Post both published editorials urging President Obama to visit Hiroshima himself as a step toward realizing a world free of nuclear arms.

Beppu: Professor Shinoda, the US government appears to have very carefully laid the groundwork for a visit and the decision has come. What's your assessment of Obama's decision?

Shinoda: I certainly praise his courage. Probably the US government has confirmed that an apology will not be on the agenda during his visit, and people in Japan will welcome his courage. All the more because of that, I would like to point out that there is therefore great responsibility on the side of Japan. Prime Minister Abe accompanying President Obama has a crucial role to play in order to illustrate his visit as a moment of reconciliation and solidarity, rather than something else.

Beppu: We do know that in America there are different opinions about this bombing, and particularly there's a strong trend of opinion that says it was a necessity to hasten the end of the war. But let's listen to what to experts we interviewed are saying about this point.

"I think he will probably approach Hiroshima with a sense of respect for the suffering and the loss that was experienced by the people there. He will probably reflect on his own feelings, and perhaps his sentiment about the future and what needs to be done with regard to these terrible weapons. But I wouldn't expect him to use the occasion, I think, to put forward any policy initiative or to prepare any major policy speech."
Sheila Smith / Senior Fellow, US Council on Foreign Relations

"What will Obama say there? I don’t expect he’s going to apologize, but just being there is an implicit apology, or implicit recognition of the horrors of the atomic bombing. So even though I’ve been arguing for years that the atomic bombs were militarily unnecessary, and morally unjustifiable, morally reprehensible, Obama doesn’t have to go and say that. He’ll still be accused of apologizing; and the Republicans have accused Obama for being on a world apology tour, even though he wasn’t apologizing. They’ll say the same thing again. He’ll take a short-term hit. But the long-term legacy impact is going to be very positive; people are going to look back on this decades from now and say that Obama did the right thing. You know, in reality Obama has cut back less than almost any of his predecessors; even though he’s the one committed to nuclear abolition, he’s betrayed that promise. And I think this is a chance for him to reverse himself."
Peter Kuznick / Professor, American University

Beppu: Well, hearing the discussions that took place in the United States before the announcement was made, I felt that maybe there's a discrepancy between what some people were in the United States and some people in Japan are reacting. Basically, we don't hear the mainstream opinion in this country of people asking Obama to apologize. Well this is what we understand from what the mayor of Hiroshima is saying, what the people of Hiroshima is saying. What's the consensus that you think is in this country?

Shinoda: I agree that there is a strong consensus among people in Japan and Hiroshima that we do not demand an apology from Mr. Obama. Rather, they would like to see him come to Hiroshima to show he remains committed to his vision. That's because we would like to see more and more world leaders visiting Hiroshima. So we don't have to create any unnecessary obstacles. The key word is reconciliation, instead of apology. It is also the right thing that President Obama and PM Abe together pray for all the casualties of the war in a city that symbolizes peace.

Beppu: We have to understand that this visit is taking place during a very sensitive year in the United States. It's the election year. So it could be or it could not be used as a political tool for discussions back home in the United States.

Shinoda: Yes, I agree. Therefore, I said that I would like to praise President Obama's courage. There are many political complexities, as you said, in the year of the presidential election. Japan therefore should support the US government's commitment to a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and Japan needs to show its own commitment to a world in which Japan has no nuclear weapon. Japan needs to convince many people that it's a better world. Perhaps on the side of Japan there is another issue, like relations with neighbors. The visit by President Obama will affect many diplomatic issues surrounding Japan, too. But perhaps we would like to accept the great responsibility on the side of Japan by welcoming President Obama.

Beppu:To make this visit really historic, in terms of this long way to achieve a world without nuclear weapons, what do you think is most needed? And what do you think is the meaning of this visit, in this context?

Shinoda: We must accept the argument that his visit will not lead to any rapid progress, unfortunately, or even any change in nuclear abolition or nuclear disarmament. However, we have to agree that the visit will send a strong spiritual message to the world, and it's simply very important that the United States once again makes clear it is committed to a world without nuclear weapons. I would like to say once again that Japan has a crucial role to play by showing its own commitment to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons -- certainly in which Japan has no nuclear weapon -- and we would like to be a stronger force to organize this movement to achieve this vision.