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Japan Political Pulse: What Obama's visit to Hiroshima will change

United States President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima on May 27 following the Group of Seven (G-7) Ise-Shima Summit will be a historic one.

    On the one hand, it could be a great opportunity for the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons and the only country in the world to have nuclear weapons used against it to reconcile and promote the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, however, it could be a chance to direct the spotlight on a reality in which nuclear disarmament is showing little progress, and the dilemma faced by Japan, which hungers for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons even as it receives the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

    Even if we recognize that President Obama's desire to leave behind a political legacy and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's hope for higher approval ratings are a part of what motivated this visit, a trip to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president is still a groundbreaking event.

    It is no secret that Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a speech he gave in Prague in April 2009 calling for "a world without nuclear weapons," has wanted to visit Hiroshima. The White House, however, was more wary.

    There has been no progress in nuclear disarmament among the world's superpowers; rather, Russia and China have increased their nuclear arsenals, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons -- as seen in North Korea and elsewhere -- has not been stopped.

    The claim that it is meaningless for the U.S. president to go to Hiroshima and unilaterally call for the abolition of nuclear weapons amid such global circumstances is not uncommon among American conservatives. Plus, if hopes for an apology were to spread within Japan, there is no way the president can oblige, for there is a deep-rooted belief that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was the right thing to do at the time.

    In other words, the White House had been concerned whether Obama would fare well in Hiroshima and in face of the consequences of going there.

    So what was the deciding factor that ultimately led to the President's Office's decision? Japanese government insiders who took part in the negotiations say, without exception, that the connections and information held by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy played a central role.

    In a policy speech she gave prior to her arrival in Japan, Kennedy touched upon Hiroshima, recalling that she was "deeply affected" by her first visit to the city in 1978, at the age of 20, with her late uncle Edward Kennedy, who was then a U.S. senator. In September 2013, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that as a nominee for the ambassadorship, "I can think of no country in which I would rather serve than Japan."

    Kennedy, the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, is a lawyer and was once a contender for a seat in the Senate, but has little political experience. With all due respect, I hadn't expected much from her, but I seem to have been wrong.

    From the 2008 presidential election, she was an unwavering supporter of Obama. When Secretary of State John Kerry was a college student, he was a frequent visitor to the Kennedy household, and served as a tutor to Caroline Kennedy.

    "(Ambassador Kennedy) has a great understanding of the power structures in the White House and Congress, and also has deep insights into how things work in Japan," a close Abe aide said. "I've had the chance to exchange information with her on multiple occasions."

    Meanwhile, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, "I strongly feel that the latest diplomatic feat (of arranging Obama's visit to Hiroshima) was very much moved by personal factors; especially the ambassador."

    One of the reasons Ambassador Kennedy's father earned his name in history is because he prevented what could've been an all-out nuclear war when in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis -- which is said to have put the world just a step away from World War III -- he rejected the military's calls to invade Cuba. Without a doubt, Ambassador Kennedy has been keenly aware of this episode in the negotiations leading up to the decision that Obama would visit Hiroshima.

    But how are we going to promote nuclear disarmament among the world's superpowers? How can Japan serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Russia? It won't be easy.

    A plan to deploy a cutting-edge, U.S.-made missile defense system in South Korea is in the works. If Japan were to nudge Russia toward nuclear disarmament, Russia would undoubtedly come back with, "But what's that going on in South Korea?" If Japan were to appeal to the U.S. to compromise, the U.S. would surely respond, "Who do you think we're protecting?"

    Japan may be powerless. But it is not because we are weak that we are calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It is the firm conviction of a country attacked by nuclear weapons twice. And this conviction must be conveyed to the rest of the world. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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