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Japanese gov't sees Obama's Hiroshima visit as chance to deepen ties

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters and welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to visit Hiroshima, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on May 10, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Japanese government is keen to regard a planned visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Hiroshima as an opportunity to turn a new page in relations between Tokyo and Washington.

The Japanese and U.S. governments announced on May 10 that Obama will make the first visit to the atomic-bombed city by a sitting U.S. head of state on May 27. The two governments also said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will accompany Obama on his visit to Hiroshima.

When asked by a reporter whether he would ask Obama to apologize for the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Prime Minister Abe emphasized the significance of the two leaders visiting the city together and said on the evening of May 10, "I, as the prime minister of the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks, and the leader of the world's only country that used nuclear weapons will together express condolences for the victims. This, I believe, will respond to the wish of the victims and those who are still suffering."

More than 70 years have passed since an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Japanese government had been thinking that a visit to Hiroshima by the leaders of the two countries would serve as an opportunity to show the degree of maturity of their bilateral relations.

Officials within the Japanese government had analyzed that there was a high possibility of Obama visiting Hiroshima. Because of this, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official had previously said, "We have no option but to quietly wait for their reply while the Japanese side does not move." According to a senior Japanese government official, it was only on May 10 when the U.S. government informed its Japanese counterpart of Obama's plan to visit Hiroshima.

The Japanese government had dwelled on where Obama's Hiroshima visit should be placed in the perspective of Japan-U.S. relations. The answer to that question was that Prime Minister Abe and Obama visit Hiroshima together and pay their respects to the victims. The government is aiming to take advantage of the visit by the two leaders to Hiroshima to give the impression that the two countries are deepening, maturing and solidifying their ties to an unprecedented level and ushering in a new era in the bilateral relationship by overcoming more than 70 years of the adversarial relationship between the "country that launched the attacks" and the "victim."

Japan and the United States have strengthen their ties in the field of defense policy in recent years, but some officials believe that Obama's visit to Hiroshima will also be an opportunity to show at home and abroad that bilateral ties are deepening even at civic levels.

Prime Minister Abe told reporters on the evening of May 10, "Sending a fresh global message about a world without nuclear weapons from the bombed site is significant for our generation, children, grandchildren and the next generation."

The Japanese side is fully aware that there are critical views among Americans in the U.S. of Obama's visit to Hiroshima as they argue that the president's mere visit to the bombed city will mean an "apology to Japan." The Japanese government consequently adopted tactics of encouraging Obama to visit Hiroshima without demanding an apology.

The Japanese government, moreover, took an approach of refraining from taking actions that could be seen as demands for an apology. "If we demand an apology, it could create an opportunity to revive the issue of (wartime) historical recognition between Japan and the United States," said a Japanese government source. Prime Minister Abe showed his utmost consideration for Obama, telling reporters, "I believe it was a big decision for the U.S. president."

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