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Kerry, Kennedy paved the way for Obama's Hiroshima visit

A photo showing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry standing in front of Hiroshima Castle was attached to a May 10 statement in which Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, announced that President Barack Obama will visit the atomic-bombed city on May 27.

The photo was taken when Kerry visited Hiroshima after attending the Group of Seven (G-7) foreign ministerial conference in Japan in April. Even though Kerry was originally not scheduled to visit Hiroshima Castle, the visit was realized at the strong request of the secretary of state.

It is well known in the United States that American servicemen who were detained at the castle as prisoners-of-war died after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945.

The first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Hiroshima is aimed at mourning all victims of World War II, including U.S. servicemen, and not apologizing for the atomic bombing. The photo attached to the statement by Rhodes appears to have sent such a message to U.S. citizens.

At the same time, Kerry's message may also have been directed at White House officials wary about a presidential visit to Hiroshima.

These officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is one of the closest aides to Obama, feared that a visit by the president could be viewed as an apology, which could revive criticism of what is regarded as his weak-kneed diplomacy. In other words, these officials apparently wanted to avoid giving ammunition to the Republican Party's presidential candidates.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy proactively moved to realize a visit by Obama to Hiroshima. In 2008, Kennedy expressed support for then Sen. Obama in the Democratic Party's nomination of its presidential candidate, and was instrumental in reversing the trends favorable to then Sen. Hillary Clinton. As such, Kennedy has close ties to Obama.

She reportedly played a key role in realizing visits by high-ranking U.S. officials to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pave the way for a presidential visit and personally recommended that Obama visit the atomic-bombed city.

It was on the morning of May 10 that the United States informed Japan that Washington had decided that Obama will visit Hiroshima. Ambassador Kennedy notified Tokyo of the decision, according to sources involved in Japan-U.S. diplomacy.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama expressed hope that he will visit the atomic bombed cities in Japan. His second four-year term nears an end and it will be the last time for Obama to attend a G-7 summit as U.S. president. As such, there was growing interest within the U.S. government in the possibility of Obama visiting Hiroshima.

Under such circumstances, a senior U.S. official asked Japanese reporters this past February how far away Hiroshima is from the site of the G-7 summit in the Ise-Shima district of Mie Prefecture.

One of the reporters replied that the G-7 summit venue is close to Hiroshima if the president travels by air.

The official then asked what the reporters thought would happen if the president visited Hiroshima, and the reporters answered that many Japanese people would welcome that. The U.S. official, who seemed satisfied, nodded.

However, it is no easy task to realize a visit by the president of the United States, the only country that has used nuclear weapons, to visit an atomic-bombed city. It is necessary to avoid stirring criticism from conservatives who believe that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right thing to do.

Another U.S. administration official said it was important to convince war veteran organizations. Those promoting a visit by Obama to Hiroshima began to gradually express enthusiasm to pave the way for a presidential visit.

A Mainichi Shimbun reporter asked Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller during a breakfast meeting at a Washington hotel on March 22 about the possibility of the president visiting Hiroshima. Gottemoeller replied that the White House is exploring the possibility of such a visit. It was the first time for a U.S. official to admit that there is a possibility of Obama visiting the atomic-bombed city.

Secretary of State Kerry then became the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit Hiroshima in April, which a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official says was a decisive move toward realizing a visit by Obama.

After visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and laying wreaths to the cenotaph for the victims of the atomic bombing, Kerry made two thumbs-up and then pointed at the Atomic Bomb Dome, which is a symbol of Hiroshima as an atomic-bombed city. Kerry then started walking toward the structure with other G-7 ministers.

At a subsequent news conference, Kerry described displays he saw at the museum as "stunning" and "gut-wrenching," and said, "I don't see how anyone could forget the images, the evidence, the recreations of what happened." He added that he would tell the president about the importance of visiting Hiroshima.

In the meantime, the Japanese government stuck to its position to wait and see if the president will visit Hiroshima.

"That's for the United States to decide," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

"Japan and the United States shared the view that Tokyo shouldn't ask the president to visit the city," said a source close to the Japanese government.

In a bid to encourage Obama to make up his mind to come to Hiroshima, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized in a speech in late April that Tokyo "has no intention of asking the United States to apologize" for the atomic bombing. Kishida also admitted that he had told Kerry prior to the G-7 foreign ministerial conference in Japan that Japan has no intention of asking the United States for an apology.

Ahead of coming to Hiroshima, Obama will visit Vietnam, where the United States had fought a fierce battle. By visiting Vietnam and Hiroshima, President Obama will send the world a message that his tour of Asia is aimed at consoling the souls of the war dead.

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