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In Hiroshima, Obama and Abe Should Acknowledge Their Country's Wrongdoing

In March of 1946, eight months after the atomic bomb was dropped, the city of Hiroshima stood in ruins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On May 27, as the first sitting president of the United States, Barack Obama, will visit Hiroshima, the city that his country attacked with an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.

Obama neither has a plan to apologize for the bombing nor to go back to the debate on the decision to drop the bomb. He has no plan to make a significant speech in Hiroshima comparable to his “Prague Speech” of April 5, 2009. There is not a plan yet for him to meet with Hibakusha (atomic-bomb victims).

He received a Nobel Peace Prize for just talking about “a world without nuclear weapons” in Prague. Yet, Obama has been relentlessly allocating large budgets for modernization of nuclear weapons – $1 trillion over thirty years.

To make matters worse, Obama will be accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the man who has claimed that nuclear weapons were not unconstitutional and is busier than ever with his war preparations. The timing of Obama’s visit is one that benefits his counterpart’s far right-wing administration for the upcoming Upper House election (scheduled in mid-July).

While Abe is aiming to take full credit for Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, will it ever remind him of some other places that he has not been to?

Can Abe, for example, go to Nanjing with Chairman Xi Jinping and together mourn for the victims of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937? Can he, with President Park Geun-hye, pay respect to the Comfort Women statue in Seoul? Can he bow in front of surviving victims in each of these cities?

At the end of last year, Abe enjoyed golf as he dispatched his Foreign Minister to Seoul to announce the “Japan-Korea Agreement” on the “comfort women” issue with the Korean Foreign Minister. Abe, who has never met with victims, called this a “final solution,” insisting the Koreans “never…dredge up this issue.”

In addressing the upcoming visit by Obama on May 14 in Tokyo, Abe must have had some nerve in saying, “We must make this a historic visit that breaks away with hostile minds.” He is the one baring fangs against China, Korea, and DPRK.

Obama should see no role model in the Abe-style apology, but he will get very close to it if he refuses to admit the U.S. wrongdoing in the atomic bombing in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, or if he fails to meet with Hibakusha. Such will be tantamount to putting salt on Hibakusha’s wounds.

If Obama sincerely wants to learn the human effects of nuclear weapons, there could be significance in his visit. But for that purpose, visiting the Hiroshima Peace Museum will not be sufficient; he must meet with Hibakusha.

There are so many flesh-and-blood Hibakusha still around. Obama cannot just go to the place called Hiroshima and pass by those people.

Also, Obama should meet not just Hibakusha who say things that are easy for Americans to hear; but any Hibakusha who want to meet Obama should be able to, including those who are angry and demand an apology. He should meet with Hibakusha from Nagasaki too.

Above all, he cannot forget about the Korean A-bomb victims, who were about ten percent of the total number of Hibakusha.

It is about time the Japanese government stopped calling Japan “the only A-bombed nation.” This perspective defines the Japanese nation as a victim of atomic bombs. Come to think of it, was Japan as a state really a victim?


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Victims of the bombing were citizens who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki then, not the Japanese nation. Those people were victims of the Japanese war, started by the state of Japan, just as much as other victims of the Japanese Empire throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Obviously, it was Japan’s colonial rule of Korea that caused as many as 70,000 Koreans to be exposed to the two atomic bombs.

If Abe still accompanies Obama to Hiroshima, wearing the mask of a victim, he should at least bow his head at the Korean A-bomb Victims Memorial, together with Obama.

The pair should also clearly recognize the atomic bomb victims in DPRK, those who have been even more neglected than the victims south of the DMZ.

This could be one way to address the concern expressed by Japan’s neighbouring nations that Obama’s visit to Hiroshima could sanitize Japan’s role in the war and turn it into a victim.

And it is expected that Obama unequivocally admits the U.S. wrongdoing in its decision to drop the bombs.

It is also a good opportunity for Abe to admit the wrong of the Japanese Empire’s aggressive war, including the fact that more lives were lost as the surrender was delayed, in order to secure preservation of the Emperor system.

Of course, Obama should admit the wrong of the atomic bombings regardless of whether he goes to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It is not that he should admit the wrong just because he will go to Hiroshima; rather, it would be simply unacceptable for him not to articulate the wrongdoing of the United States if he set foot in Hiroshima.

The Memorial Cenotaph of Hiroshima inscription reads: “Yasuraka ni nemutte kudasai [Please rest in peace] – Ayamachi wa kurikaeshimasenukara [Will not repeat the mistake].” This inscription has repeatedly stirred controversy, over the question of WHOSE mistake it was.

Obama and Abe should utter these words, representing their own governments, clarifying that the subject of the “mistake” was the United States and Japan, respectively.

The English-language plaque at the cenotaph has a translation of the above inscription, which reads “LET ALL SOULS HERE REST IN PEACE. FOR WE SHALL NOT REPEAT THE EVIL.” It was a bold move to translate ayamachi to the “evil.”

This means that the U.S. government high-ranking officials who visited Hiroshima in the past, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ambassadors John Roos and Caroline Kennedy, and Secretary of State John Kerry, dedicated flowers to a memorial that defined the atomic-bombing as “evil.”

This fact deserves more attention.

Satoko Oka Norimatsu

Satoko Oka Norimatsu

Satoko Oka Norimatsu is a writer based in Vancouver, Canada. She is co-author of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, the Second Edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

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