"President Barack Obama's visit will have an enormous impact to turn the world toward an end to nuclear weapons by touching on the reality of the atomic bombings, and having those thoughts transmitted around the world."
That is how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a May 10 news conference, described the significance of U.S. President Barack Obama's announced visit to Hiroshima later this month.
The Japanese government certainly welcomes the presidential visit, but that does not mean it welcomes a world without nuclear weapons with open arms. This is because Japan, though it is the only country ever subjected to nuclear attack and continues to promote the elimination of atomic weapons, views it as extremely important to stay under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, particularly as North Korea develops nuclear bombs and China modernizes its own atomic arsenal.
The security environment around Japan is becoming increasingly severe. North Korea is working on building bombs small enough to fit on missiles. In its March report on the security situation in East Asia, Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies stated, "The possibility that North Korea succeeded in miniaturizing its atomic weapons and building missile warheads has been pointed out." North Korea is thought to have 200 Nodong ballistic missiles, which could carry a nuclear warhead and can reach Japan. It is simply a fact that Japan is increasingly dependent on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
President Obama made eliminating nuclear arms one of his campaign promises back in 2008, and he undertook a reappraisal of U.S. nuclear policy in his first year in office. During this review, the U.S. decided to scrap its nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. The move prompted worries in Tokyo that it would "affect deterrence in regards to North Korea." There were also some in Japan who voiced concerns about the realism of switching from a nuclear to conventional deterrent.
The U.S. sensed this discomfiture, and made absolutely clear at a bilateral defense conference that the American nuclear umbrella extended over Japan. The Obama administration's "Nuclear Posture Review" released in April 2010 also continued the nuclear deterrent theory, and did not include the president's desired "no first use" principle.
"How does the nuclear umbrella function? The U.S. built trust with Japan and South Korea on this question through lengthy discussions," observes Japan Institute of International Affairs chief researcher Hirofumi Tosaki. On Obama's Hiroshima visit, Tosaki told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It will be a symbolic message (to the world) coming from a country that used nuclear arms and a country subjected to such weapons, particularly as the nuclear powers are showing so little enthusiasm for disarmament."
However, "as long as China, Russia and North Korea lean on atomic weapons, the U.S. cannot give them up. It's unlikely Obama's Hiroshima visit will alter the disarmament landscape," he added.
How the presidential trip to Hiroshima will impact nuclear policy, if at all, remains to be seen. This question will remain a task for both the Japanese and U.S. governments long after Obama has returned home.