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Hibakusha praise Obama Hiroshima visit, but fear history will go unquestioned

Visitors are seen in front of the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, in Hiroshima, on May 11, 2016. (Mainichi)

It was fall of 2009, about six months after U.S. President Barack Obama made his historic speech about seeking a world without nuclear weapons, that U.S. Ambassador John Roos, who had just been posted to Japan, visited Hiroshima with his family. The purpose of the visit was to meet with then Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, to sound out a possible visit to the city by President Obama.

"We want President Obama to come to Hiroshima," Akiba told Roos over lunch. "We are not seeking an apology. We will welcome him." On Aug. 6 the following year, Roos attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, marking the first such visit by a serving U.S. ambassador. There were no strong objections to the visit from American politicians or the American public.

The Japanese government has since sent out the message that it would not demand an apology if Obama were to visit Hiroshima, and both the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture and the mayor of the city of Hiroshima have told press conferences that they are not intent on getting one.

Has the White House's announcement that Obama will make a visit to Hiroshima later this month resolved the bad blood felt by those who lost their families to the A-bomb and continue to suffer the effects of the bombing?

Sunao Tsuboi, 91, co-chairman of Hiroshima Hidankyo, a confederation of groups of Hiroshima A-bomb survivors, admits that deep down, he still feels enmity toward the U.S. However, he adds, "I've started to realize that we must use the power of reason to overcome such loathing."

According to Kazumi Mizumoto, deputy chief of Hiroshima City University's Hiroshima Peace Institute, anger toward the atomic bombings was more visible 10 to 20 years ago compared to today. When the 9.11 terrorist attacks took place in the U.S. in 2001, one hibakusha -- or A-bomb survivor -- told a newspaper reporter, "I shouldn't say this, but I feel as though I've had a weight taken off my chest." Mizumoto says there were other hibakusha who felt the same way.

Meanwhile, an 85-year-old hibakusha who lost family members and friends to the A-bomb has a different take.

"Until Obama's visit was announced, I wanted an apology. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel anger toward the U.S., but I've come to think that the very fact that he is coming to Japan amid widespread public opinion (in the U.S.) that the atomic bombing was justifiable, already implies an apology," he said.

Japan took to the stand when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, held an inquiry in November 1995 on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Then Hiroshima Mayor Takashi Hiraoka and then Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito declared that nuclear weapons were inhumane weapons of mass destruction that killed indiscriminately, and that their use violated international law. However, a Japanese senior Foreign Ministry official who made a statement just before the two mayors did not address the legality of the use of such weapons, and said that anything that was subsequently expressed by the two mayors that were not factual were not necessarily views held by the Japanese government.

Hiroshi Harada, 76, a Hiroshima A-bomb survivor who was the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum at the time of the ICJ hearings, said that efforts were made to coordinate testimony with the Foreign Ministry prior to the hearings.

"I stood my ground that as a city that experienced the atomic bombing, we should declare that the use of nuclear weapons was illegal, even if the government avoided saying so," he recalled.

In the years since then, Japan has failed to be a leader in discussions within the international community on the elimination of nuclear weapons. The paradox lies in the fact that at the same time Japan has advocated for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons, it has been protected by the U.S. "nuclear umbrella," relying on its deterrent power against North Korean nuclear armament and other threats.

At the U.N. General Assembly in December 2015, a Japanese-government-sponsored resolution encouraging world leaders and youth to visit the A-bombed cities was formally adopted. The Japanese government also, however, abstained from voting on a "humanitarian pledge" resolution that would strengthen legal frameworks for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, which passed with 139 votes. The abstention was a decision made out of consideration for the U.S., which opposed the resolution.

The Japanese government has repeatedly claimed that it wants to serve as a bridge between nuclear and non-nuclear states. However, its inconsistent behavior on the international stage has generated a sense of distrust toward it from both sides.

Former Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum director Harada is concerned by the emphasis on forging a "forward-looking" relationship between Japan and the U.S.

"I fear that the shaking of hands by President Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of the cenotaph for A-bomb victims in Hiroshima will be made into a symbol of reconciliation that ignores historical accountability," Harada said. "As long as people continue to justify the atomic bombings, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons will not become a reality."

Seventy-one years have passed since the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president is finally about to take place. The big question is whether or not the visit will spur bridge-building between the A-bombed cities and the Japanese government, as well as between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

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