HIROSHIMA, Japan - Japan marked 64 years Thursday since Hiroshima was hit in the world's first atomic bomb attack with a call for a nuclear-weapons-free world, a goal backed by US President Barack Obama.
The mayor of Hiroshima, the city where 140,000 people died from the blast, renewed his call for the abolition of what he said are 24,000 remaining nuclear warheads over the next decade as he led the solemn ceremony.
About 50,000 people, including 'hibakusha' or atom bomb survivors, politicians and envoys from 59 countries and the United Nations, gathered near the A-bomb Dome, the skeleton of a hall burned by the bomb's intense heat.
"The abolition of nuclear weapons is the will not only of the hibakusha but also of the vast majority of people and nations on this planet," said the mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, head of the international group Mayors for Peace.
Akiba praised Obama for stating at a speech in Prague this year that the United States, as the only country to have ever used an atomic weapon, has "a moral responsibility" to work toward their eventual abolition.
"We refer to ourselves, the great global majority, as the 'Obamajority,' and we call on the rest of the world to join forces with us to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2020," Akiba said in his speech in the southern city.
"Together, we can abolish nuclear weapons," he added. "Yes, we can."
Those at the memorial ceremony offered their silent prayers at 8:15 am (2315 GMT Wednesday), the exact moment the bomb was dropped in 1945.
The blinding blast of "Little Boy" and the fallout from its mushroom cloud killed some 140,000 people, either instantly or in the days and weeks that followed as radiation or horrific burns took their toll.
Three days after the attack, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, which killed 70,000 people in the southern port city.
Japan surrendered on August 15, ending World War II in the Pacific. The nation has since been officially pacifist, while also becoming one of the United States' closest allies, hosting some 47,000 US troops.
Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso told the ceremony that "I pledge anew today that Japan will be the frontrunner in the international community in abolishing nuclear weapons and realising eternal peace."
Speaking to reporters about two hours later, Aso however voiced doubt that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world was realistic.
"It might be possible... if they were abolished suddenly, on one day in one go," he said. "But under normal circumstances it is unimaginable."
Aso, who faces elections this month, also promised more help for more than 300 ailing survivors of the nuclear bombings who have fought court battles to win recognition as hibakusha as well as financial relief.
Debate, meanwhile, continues over the merit of the atom bombings.
Many have argued the attacks brought a quick end to the war and prevented the greater bloodshed of a land invasion of Japan. Others have said the bombings were an unnecessary, and perhaps experimental, atrocity.
Washington has never apologised, and a US opinion poll showed this week that nearly two-thirds of Americans think dropping the bombs was the right decision.
Morris Jeppson, one of the crew members of the B-29 Superfortress plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, told the Mainichi Shimbun daily this week that he believed then-US president Harry Truman had made the right decision.
Jeppson, 87, argued that Obama was "on the wrong track" and that his appeal for a nuclear-weapons-free world was "naive," the newspaper reported.
Hiroshima mayor Akiba, meanwhile, expressed confidence that momentum was building for the goal of a 2020 abolition of nuclear weapons, saying that Mayors for Peace now had more than 3,000 member-cities worldwide.