Visit by Obama to the A-bombed cities would encourage U.S.-Japan reconciliation

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

"I would be honored to have the opportunity to visit those cities at some point during my presidency." This is the first time, in a television interview with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) aired on November 10, that U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed his willingness to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fact that Mr. Obama made such a candid remark, while the sentiment of support for the atomic bombings is still so deeply rooted among the American public, is to be commended.

The campaign to invite Mr. Obama to Hiroshima began more than a year ago. It's not at all surprising that the citizens of Hiroshima, who hold a fervent wish for nuclear abolition, responded with more enthusiasm than Americans to the call for a nuclear-free world that Mr. Obama began advocating as a presidential candidate of the nuclear superpower.

In addition to the campaign spearheaded by A-bomb survivors, last November, when Mr. Obama was elected president, "Peace Seeds," a peace newspaper produced by Japanese teens in Hiroshima and published regularly in the Chugoku Shimbun, launched a letter-writing campaign to invite Mr. Obama to visit Hiroshima. In total, 335 letters were contributed, translated into English and later delivered to the White House. Then, last month, a group of high school students in Hiroshima issued a letter to President Obama through The New York Times, calling on him "to visit Hiroshima one day soon." In their appeal to the president, the students said: "By seeing firsthand how terrible nuclear weapons truly are, as well as the passion for peace of our citizens, we believe you would be deeply inspired to do everything possible to eliminate these weapons from our earth."

In May, both Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba and Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue visited Washington and appealed to Democratic congressmen for their support in the effort to encourage Mr. Obama's visit to the A-bombed cities.

So far, neither President Obama nor his administration has made an explicit response to the appeal. However, the sincere message conveyed by the two cities has surely been relayed to the president.

"We should not rely only on President Obama." "Mr. Obama's visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not automatically bring about the total elimination of nuclear weapons." "We should not forget that the U.S. is still engaged in a war in Afghanistan."

These are reasonable arguments. Mr. Obama, in fact, pointed out as much in his speech in Prague when he said that, as long as nuclear arsenals exist, "the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary." In other words, it's assuredly true that the efforts of only one country cannot eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. Multilateral efforts are vital, such as the one made by Mayor Akiba and Mayor Taue in calling on the embassies of nuclear weapon states in Tokyo and urging the leaders of those nations to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Still, it would be of enormous significance if the sitting president of the nation which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II visited these two cities. And not only for the fact that this could further fuel the growing global momentum for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Since the end of World War II, on the grassroots level, the people of the U.S. and Japan have made efforts to overcome bitterness and build friendship between the two countries. On the governmental level, though, where the U.S.-Japan alliance has been forged, a formal reconciliation has yet to take place, because the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. have remained obstacles to reconciliation.

It is important, therefore, to turn a visit by Mr. Obama to the A-bombed cities into an event of "true reconciliation" between the two countries. In this context, Prime Minister Hatoyama should also pay a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and lay a wreath of flowers to mourn the lives lost in Japan's surprise attack at this site as well as American deaths during the Pacific War. This would help ease opposition felt by the American people over their president's visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Both the U.S. and Japan have the capacity to exert leadership in the quest to eliminate nuclear weapons and create a more peaceful world. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are hoping that a visit by President Obama to the A-bombed cities can advance this effort. Both the Japanese government and Japanese citizens should work harder to realize such a visit by the president as early as possible.

(Originally published on November 11, 2009)