Barack Obama has become the first sitting US president to tour the city that was the site of the world’s first atomic bombing – an unprecedented step welcomed by the Japanese people. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
President Obama had made it abundantly clear in advance of his trip that he would not be issuing an apology when he paid his respects at the cenotaph to the thousands who died when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, 71 years ago.
The American leader kept that pledge, walking a tightrope between saying too much and too little, but ultimately satisfying the majority of Japanese merely by being the first serving US president to visit the city.
“The mainstream in Japanese society accept Obama’s visit as something that he wanted to do personally, but staying within the constraints of his own domestic policies,” said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
“We knew in advance that there was not going to be an apology, but we genuinely appreciate the sentiment behind the visit and it will now become another very positive episode in the pageantry that surrounds Hiroshima,” he added.
Extremes of left and right
The only people who will be upset by the president’s comments will be the “small, extremist factions on both the left and the right,” Okumura told DW.
Many Japanese nationalists believe that the dropping of the bombs was a form of victor’s justice over an already defeated enemy and that therefore Japan should be considered the primary victim of World War II.
At the other extreme of the political spectrum, left-wingers will have been disappointed that Obama did not arrive in Hiroshima with a sweeping commitment to doing away with all the nuclear weapons in the world.
A small demonstration – maybe 100 strong – calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons took place on the edge of the Peace Memorial Park but the protesters remained peaceful and were kept well away from the president as he toured the site.
“Of the people that I have been talking to today, the vast majority are simply happy that what happened in Hiroshima has now been recognized and the importance of denuclearization is once again being discussed,” said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of politics at Tokyo’s International Christian University.
“For most people, it means that despite the bombings, they can look forward to all the positive developments that have come out of the bilateral friendship that has endured since 1945,” he added.
‘No apology needed’
“I really don’t think most Japanese people needed an apology from the president,” Nagy stressed. “It was more significant to them that Obama was moving toward the end of his presidency by going to Hiroshima, saying what he said and sending the message that nuclear war remains a threat to mankind today,” the analyst said.
Several of the turns of phrase that Obama used in his address at the Peace Memorial Park are likely to have been interpreted in nearby nations as criticism of their rush to acquire nuclear weapons.
“Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them,” Obama said. “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.
“We must change our mindset about war itself – to prevent conflicts through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun; to see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition; to define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build,” he added.
But North Korea, which has a controversial nuclear weapons program, condemned Obama in an editorial in state-run media – published on Thursday, May 26 – as exhibiting “mean political calculation” by paying his respects in Hiroshima.
An opinion article by the Korea Central News Agency accused Obama of being “seized with the wild ambition to dominate the world by dint of the US nuclear edge.”
The editorial said the US has “misled” global public opinion by creating the idea that North Korea poses a nuclear threat while, at the same time, Washington is upgrading its own nuclear arsenal.
“Obama’s trip to the A-bombed city would not help hide the true colors of the US as a country of nuclear war maniacs and nuke proliferators as it has stepped up the modernization of its nuclear weapons under the spurious mask of building a ‘world without nuclear weapons,’ ” it added.
But North Korea’s protests will likely be ignored by Tokyo and Washington, and the president’s visit is already being seen as cementing an already solid relationship, particularly in the face of repeated provocations emanating from Pyongyang in recent years.
“Bilateral ties are already sufficiently strong and I would say that this latest move has enhanced the Japanese public’s soft spot for Obama,” said Okumura.
Nagy shares a similar view. “Both nations are on the same page when it comes to security, economics, the importance of shared norms – such as human rights, democracy and the importance of rule-based decision-making,” he said. “And Obama’s Hiroshima visit is only going to strengthen this partnership.”