Interview with US President Obama
May 23, 2016
US President Barack Obama has been sharing his hopes ahead of his historic trip to Hiroshima. Speaking exclusively to NHK, he said he wants to recognize all victims of war, past and present.
On Friday, Obama is due to become the first sitting US president to visit the city since the atomic bombing.
He spoke with NHK's Washington Bureau Chief Masayoshi Tanaka at the White House, ahead of his trip to Japan. He outlined the aim of his visit and his wish for a world without nuclear weapons.
Tanaka: Thank you very much, Mr. President for taking our interview. This is your fourth time to Japan. Why now, you decided to go to Hiroshima? What is the purpose of the visit?
Obama: I think it’s an appropriate time. The G7 will be hosted close to Hiroshima, and the Peace Memorial. When I first visited Japan, I said that this was something that I thought I might be interested in doing. And since I only have a few months left in the office, I thought it was good time for me to reflect on the nature of war.
My purpose is not to simply revisit the past, but to affirm that innocent people die in war, on all sides, that we should do everything we can to try to promote peace and dialogue around the world, that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons. That is something that I worked on since I first came into office.
And, I think it is also a happy story about how former adversaries came together to become one of the closest partnerships and closet allies in the world. And that should teach us all a lesson about our ability to overcome our differences, to create a better future for our children and our grandchildren. We do that not by ignoring our history but by understanding it, and recognizing it, but then pledging to do better in the future.
Tanaka: However, it took 7 years, why it took 7 years to make your final decision to go Hiroshima. Are there any obstacles or difficulties?
Obama: There weren’t any obstacles. The President of the United Sates is a busy guy. And, typically when I travel to a country, I have bilateral meetings, I have summits, I have press interviews. There are always a lot of things taking place.
Tanaka: Would you tell us what you’re going to do in Hiroshima?
Obama: Well, my expectation is, is that I will visit the Peace Memorial. I certainly will provide some brief reflections. I think that the memorial itself is such a powerful reminder of the power of nuclear weapons and of war, that I do not expect to provide a very long speech but rather, I think, some very humble reflections about my views on how we can forge a better peace around the world, and how we can use the model of relations between the United States and Japan as example of how we can move forward. And, my hope is that my visit then opens up other opportunities to work together on a whole range of issues.
Tanaka: Do you think an apology will be included?
Obama: No, because I think that’s it’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions. It’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them, but I know as somebody who has now sat in this position for the last seven and a half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during war time.
So I will, I think, emphasize how we can move forward, but also emphasize the fact that, as I said before, people suffer terribly in war, and we need to try to evolve our human responses and our human institutions in a way that emphasizes peace and diplomacy wherever we can.
Tanaka: Survivors in Hiroshima are very, very eager to meet you. Are you going to meet them there?
Obama: Well, we haven’t finalized the agenda so I don’t know yet exactly what will happen. But I think it’s fair to say that my goal here is to speak to the people of Japan but also the people of the region, the people throughout Asia, the people back here in the United States, people around the world.
There are many people who are still suffering from war as we speak. And, part of my goal is to recognize that innocent people caught in a war can suffer tremendously, and that’s not just a thing of the past, that is happening today in many parts of the world.
Former Japanese ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.
Shibuya: Back in the US, there are differing opinions about the pros and cons of Obama's visit to Hiroshima. How do you assess his decision?
Fujisaki: I haven't really heard so many cons, but I personally think that this was a great decision on the part of President Obama. I was there in Hiroshima 3 days ago and had a dinner with Maj. Matsui, and he was saying he was grateful for the wisdom and conscience of President Obama.
Beppu: We understand that there was many negotiations, many talks to realize this historic visit. It is widely reported in the Japanese press that initially the Japanese diplomatic corps, there were some people in the Japanese diplomatic corps that were cautious about this visit, saying that it could be premature. Do you have any knowledge about it? Or did you speak particularly about this with your American counterparts?
Fujisaki: No, I'm not aware of such cautiousness on the Japanese side. I've not spoken about the president's visit or the secretary of state's visit. But when I was ambassador, and when Ambassador Roos was going to Japan, I had an opportunity to meet before that. And I told him that I thought it would be a great idea for him to consider going to Hiroshima. I had done the same for the baton, that march POWs convention, and I think it's very important for the ambassadors to really look back at the history and do what they can.
Beppu: Foreign Minister Kishida has been saying that the Japanese position is that Japan will not ask for any sort of apologies to President Obama. Do you think this position helped this visit to Japan?
Fujisaki: I'm sorry, I don't know. But my take is that President Obama, as he's saying in the interview with NHK, wanted to make this visit from the beginning, when he visited Japan in November 2009, he said it's a great honor for him to be visiting, at this time he didn't think he has time. So I thought during his time he will make a visit. So I was not so surprised. I was thinking he will do it on this occasion.
Beppu: Seeing this visit from other viewpoints, there was a major South Korean newspaper that was reporting that, well basically this newspaper's point was that they worried this visit could be used by Japan as a way to stress only the aspect of Japan as being a victim in the war, and not shed light enough on the side of the aggressor. Well, this is what the newspaper was saying. There are these kind of views. How do you think we should hear them, and what should we do in the face of these kind of views?
Fujisaki: I would not like to repeat what Mr. Obama said, but in his proper speech or in his interview with NHK, he's saying 2 things, the same things: one, he's doing this because it's a step towards eliminating nuclear weapons, not right away, but it will take a long time, and also he's saying it's important to look back and see how nuclear weapons could have killed innocent people. And I think these are the things that he has said and that he has in mind. So it's not about Japan and it's not about Hiroshima only. It's about the effect of nuclear weapons.
Obama spoke of the current reality of nuclear disarmament, and how this could change in the future. He also touched on other themes to be discussed during the G7 summit in Ise-Shima.
Obama: We now face a moment in history where, in many ways, the world has shrunk. We are more interconnected than ever before, more interdependent than ever before. But, that also brings with it new perils, new threats, transnational terrorism, the possibility that terrorist organizations could get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction. And that is why it is so important for us to work together, to feel a sense of urgency about how we can secure those nuclear stockpiles that currently exist.
Tanaka: Looking at the current world economy, what message would you like to deliver to the world from Ise-Shima Summit?
Obama: I think it’s important for us to recognize that growth depends on all countries taking appropriate steps to encourage job creation, to encourage increased global commerce and increased global trade. One of the most important initiatives that I’ve taken with Prime Minister Abe has been the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. And this is an example of both our countries trying to work with the entire Asia-Pacific region to raise standards, raise environmental protections, raise protections that workers have to protect intellectual property.
I'm sure we’ll also have an occasion also to discuss regional hotspots like the Middle East and the South China Sea, the issue of North Korea and nuclear proliferation. And we’ll also have an opportunity to discuss our common goals for international development -- how we can encourage the education of women and girls, and get them more economic opportunity and how we can work together to promote global health.
Tanaka: My question is, a world without nuclear weapons. How do you evaluate the current situation of nuclear disarmament worldwide?
Obama: Well, I think that we have made some modest progress in at least not seeing a huge increase in nuclear stockpiles. In the major countries that possess nuclear weapons, I think there’s been an emphasis not on building up new weapons.
I’ve tried to negotiate with the Russians and was able to get, when I first came into office, a START-Ⅱ treaty that reduced the stockpiles of Russian and US nuclear weapons. I think we can go further but so far Russia has no shown itself interest in doing more.
I think the biggest challenge we have right now with respect to nuclear weapons is the dangers of the nuclear program in the, in Pyongyang, in North Korea. And, there has been, I think a continued effort on their part, not only to develop nuclear weapons but also to deliver them in ways that are reckless and provocative. And the international community has shunned them for their behavior, but so far they haven’t changed their behavior the way they need to.
Part of the reason why that’s such a concern is, is that North Korea also has a history of proliferating nuclear technologies. And, so I think that we still have work to do. North Korea is the worst example, but we also have other parts of the world where you’re still seeing the development of new nuclear technologies that could be very dangerous, and it’s important for us to recognize that our capabilities today are so enormous already, without any new weapons that for any country to devote itself to developing additional nuclear stockpiled, when there's so much human need for development, food, healthcare and education for our children, those are the kinds of investments that we should be encouraging.
Shibuya: Mr. Fujisaki, during the Ise-Shima summit, a range of global issues will be on the table. What kind of results do you expect from the talks?
Fujisaki: Do you know why there are a range of issues, Aki-san?
Fujisaki: I didn't know as well, but 15 years ago I got to be a G8 sherpa, and I understood. It's like a medical checkup of our system of democracy and market economy, because every time we have some problems coming up, every year. So like our medical health checkup there's fat, cholesterol, and we check up everything. That's why the communique looks every year, the same issues coming up. But there are differences. And this year is very important because of 2 reasons: one, democracy and market economy is facing really an earthquake, which is very severe in a sense because we can see terrorism or deflation or discrepancy between haves and have-nots. There are a lot of reasons facing us. It's more than before. The second reason is that we are meeting in Asia, and there are issues that we would like to address in Asia, like the South China Sea or North Korea. And for those 2 reasons I think this summit is very important for Japan and for the rest of the world as well.
Beppu: You might tell me I'm asking something about too much or think of a future if the summit didn't even happen but following the summit, or after the historic visit, what kind of relations do you expect between the United States and Japan?
Fujisaki: You see, relations between the United States and Japan could be affected by developments in both countries so it's rather difficult to say that it will just remain as it is. But I think the fundamentals are very strong, meaning more than 70 percent of Americans think that Japan is a trustworthy partner. More than 70 percent of Japanese say they feel affinity towards Americans. And I think that people-to-people relations is the very basis, I think Japan-US relations will further develop because the Japanese people very much appreciate in general this visit of President Obama.
Beppu: This visit of President Obama to Hiroshima is expected to boost the cause of a world without nuclear weapons. After the visit I understand, I assume that the responsibilities for all countries, for all citizens will grow. Looking at Japan, there is a policy to look for nuclear abolition, abolition of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, there is this position that Japan remains under the nuclear umbrella of the United States of America. How do you think the country should balance these 2 positions and what should the country do for this ultimate goal of abolishing the weapons?
Fujisaki: I think President Obama is touching on this in his speech, and he's saying that we have to aim at this ultimate goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. At the same time, the United States cannot do it alone. Although the United States, as the only country that has used nuclear weapons, has to have the responsibility to start it, but he needs other countries to work with, in Soviet Union and China and other countries. So I think that it will not happen right way. It's a long time. As he said, it will not happen in his lifetime. I think so too. But we have to start, and I think this will be a good start.