The significance of a visit to Hiroshima by Obama

by Junji Akechi, Staff Writer

More and more people are calling for U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Hiroshima. Although it seems unlikely he will be able to do so during his first trip to Japan next month, his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize has raised expectations in Hiroshima. At the same time, others have said that a visit by Mr. Obama to Hiroshima must not be regarded as solely for the purpose of eliminating nuclear weapons.

In August of this year Fumio Matsuo, 76, a Tokyo-based journalist and former head of the Washington bureau of Kyodo News, published a book entitled Obama Daitoryo ga Hiroshima ni Kenka Suru Hi ("The Day President Obama Lays a Wreath in Hiroshima"). "A visit to Hiroshima must be used to achieve mutual reconciliation between Japan and the U.S. and for a historic reconciliation between Japan and other Asian countries," he said.

What would be the significance of a visit to Hiroshima by the president of the nation that dropped atomic bombs on Japan and the world's largest nuclear power? The Chugoku Shimbun asked Mr. Matsuo and Emiko Okada, 72, an atomic bomb survivor from Hiroshima, to share their thoughts on this issue.

Fumio Matsuo, former head of the Washington bureau of Kyodo News

First step toward mutual reconciliation

For Hiroshima, which has continued to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, a visit by U.S. President Obama would certainly be highly significant. But a visit by the president must be looked at from a broader perspective. It should be an opportunity for Japan to achieve a historic reconciliation with the U.S. as well as the countries of Asia.

Japan and the U.S. have yet to take responsibility for their actions during the war. In that sense, a ceremony in which a U.S. president lays a wreath in memory of the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima would be a big first step. But Obama is a political realist. Even if he were to come to Hiroshima, considering the need to be responsive to conservatives in the U.S., the visit would probably be regarded primarily as a public relations event in support of his effort to promote "a world without nuclear weapons."

Even so, just coming to Hiroshima is very important. Visits to Hiroshima were considered during the administrations of both Gerald Ford [Republican] and Bill Clinton [Democrat]. There is no doubt that the U.S. is conscious of the issue of Hiroshima. During the administration of George W. Bush I wrote an opinion piece for a U.S. newspaper in which I proposed that the president visit Hiroshima and lay a wreath. I'm still getting feedback from that.

But mutuality is very important in reconciliation. The laying of a wreath in Hiroshima by a U.S. president should be accompanied by the laying of a wreath at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese prime minister. Some people may strongly object to linking the atomic bombing and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but I believe common ground can be found in mourning the war dead.

Wisdom of Germany

The basis for my insistence on the mutual laying of wreaths is the ceremony held on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, Germany in 1995. Thirty-five thousand people were killed in the bombing by the air forces of the U.S. and the U.K. The heads of the militaries of those nations attended the ceremony. A similar ceremony has yet to be held in Japan.

Roman Herzog, then president of Germany, gave an excellent speech. He said that the lives lost as the result of crimes by the Nazis could not be offset by the lives lost in the bombing of Dresden and that the goal of the ceremony was not to apologize or accuse but to mourn the dead, an ancient value of human beings.

There were no speeches of apology from the representatives of the U.S. or the U.K., but it was symbolic that they attended the ceremony and laid wreaths. Japan could learn a lot from the wisdom of Germany, which has reconciled with its former enemies.

There were pre-conditions for the reconciliation in Dresden. Serious efforts were made to face the past, such as apologies and compensation by successive German administrations for the crimes of the Nazis and the creation of history textbooks in cooperation with France. That is the big difference with Japan.

Japan still has unresolved historical issues with China, South Korea, North Korea and other countries. For that reason, we must have visits by the leaders of both Japan and the U.S. to each other's nations to mourn the war dead and achieve reconciliation. And this must be linked to a historic reconciliation with the countries of Asia.

Asia must also enter the picture

From that standpoint, I support the invitation to the leaders of the world to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama issued in his remarks before the United Nations Security Council. First of all, during Obama's first visit to Japan in November, I would like the two countries to agree on the laying of wreaths in each other's countries. Then, for example, Japan could invite the president of China to Hiroshima, and Japan's prime minister could go to Nanjing and Chongqing to lay wreaths there. This is one way to address the issue.

Next year marks the centennial of Japan's annexation of Korea. With Japan's new foreign policy, it may be time for Hiroshima to serve as the starting point for a historical reconciliation in East Asia from a broad perspective. And that shouldn't conflict with Hiroshima's continued call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Emiko Okada, atomic bomb survivor

Mutual trust is key

As an atomic bomb survivor, who has continued to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, when I heard Obama speak of "a world without nuclear weapons" I felt I had seen a ray of hope for the first time in the many years of my activities. I think it would be very significant for the president to visit Hiroshima and lay a wreath.

I work as a volunteer at Peace Memorial Museum. When I guide foreigners on tours of the museum and tell them about my experiences, I always begin by talking about Japan's past mistakes because I have learned from many visitors from Asia of the terrible things Japan did in the region.

Among the young Chinese and Korean visitors to the museum, there have been some whose grandfathers were killed by the Japanese Imperial Army or were forced to use Japanese names and speak Japanese. Even if two countries have resolved the historical issues between them in a political and a financial sense, those involved continue to feel that the issues will never be resolved. When I learned that, I realized that it was not enough to just talk about the damages suffered in Japan.

When giving tours of the museum and describing my experiences, I have always emphasized the horror of nuclear weapons. But since I began giving more thought to the pain of others, I feel my message gets through to people more often than before.

The relationships of trust that we build between people form the basis of relationships between countries. I would like the young people who will lead the next generation to make a particular effort to learn about Asia's past and create opportunities to have dialogues among themselves.


Bombing of Dresden
From February 13 to 14, 1945, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the British Royal Air Force conducted wholesale bombing raids on the city of Dresden in eastern Germany. It was one of the largest bombing raids of World War II, and most of the city was destroyed by high-explosive bombs and incendiary bombs. When the city was part of East Germany, it announced that about 35,000 people died in the bombing.


Fumio Matsuo
Native of Tokyo. Served as head of the Kyodo News bureaus in Bangkok and Washington. His Democracy with a Gun: America and the Policy of Force won the Nihon Essayist Club Prize in 2004. As a journalist, specializes in issues related to the U.S.

Emiko Okada
Native of Hiroshima. Exposed to the atomic bomb in the garden of her home 2.8 kilometers from the hypocenter when she was 8 years old. Has traveled to the U.S., Germany, Poland, Ukraine, India and Pakistan to tell of her experiences. Currently serves as a volunteer at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

(Originally published October 19, 2009)

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