65 Years After the Atomic Bombing: Reflections on August 6

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

Sixty-five years have passed since the United States opened the door to the nuclear age by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The military city of Hiroshima, which was turned instantly into a living hell due to the bombing, overcame this catastrophe and was reborn as a city of peace, aspiring to the attainment of a world without nuclear weapons and war.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony began as the Hiroshima Peace Festival on August 6, 1947. The city has observed the anniversary of the bombing this year after a long, long journey from destruction. Though difficulties still lay on the horizon, Hiroshima has been taking new steps of hope.

One of these steps is the presence of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who leads the 192-member United Nations, at the Peace Memorial Ceremony, marking the first-ever appearance at the event by a U.N. Secretary-General. Mr. Ban, praising antinuclear and peace-related efforts by A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) over the years and the initiative of Mayors for Peace in seeking nuclear abolition by 2020, vowed to dedicate all his strength in pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Ban is a great gift to Hiroshima, which has long sought a partnership with the United Nations in its quest for nuclear abolition. At the same time, there is some criticism among the nuclear weapon states that Mr. Ban "lacks balance in his remarks and actions as the head of an international organization." However, his brave proposals and actions for nuclear abolition, which overlap with the appeals of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have gained overwhelming support from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the world and non-nuclear weapon states as well.

The fact that Mr. Ban, the leader of an international organization and, at the same time, a Korean leader, chose to attend the ceremony has further significance in light of Japan's relationship with South Korea, where the belief that "Japan deserved the atomic bombings, considering its colonial rule in Korea" still persists. Mr. Ban, who offered flowers to the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-bomb in Peace Memorial Park, must have reflected on the history behind the many Korean lives that were also lost to the atomic bombing.

Mr. Ban, a world citizen confronting the nuclear threat common to humanity as a whole, has now formed ties to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His visits to both A-bombed cities perhaps represent his willingness to extend a hand to us, the Japanese, from, so to speak, the side of victims with the unspoken message: "We will forgive you, but we will not forget." The Japanese government and Japanese people, failing to provide satisfactory compensation to the other victims of the war, including the Korean hibakusha, must respond sincerely to Mr. Ban's frank and forward-thinking action.

Another new step seen in Hiroshima was the presence of the first representative from the United States at the Peace Memorial Ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, along with the first attendance by representatives from the nuclear powers of the United Kingdom and France. In October of last year, soon after Mr. Roos assumed his current post, he visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with his family. He laid a wreath of flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims and looked intently at the exhibits in Peace Memorial Museum. His presence at the ceremony this time, at the request of U.S. President Barack Obama, has a distinctly different meaning from his previous "private" visit. His dour expression throughout the ceremony underscored the difference.

A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy after Mr. Roos's appearance stated that the U.S. participation in the ceremony sought to "express respect for all the victims of World War II" and to "realize a world without nuclear weapons."

With public opinion reflecting such sentiments as "The atomic bombing hastened the end of the war and saved the lives of many U.S. soldiers" and "Remember Pearl Harbor" still holding sway in the United States, some criticism was voiced against Mr. Roos's presence at the ceremony, including comments like "It's a sign of apology. It's unforgivable."

However, it is also true that a large number of Americans, and much of the younger generations, actively supported Mr. Roos's participation in the ceremony. Three female university students from Colorado whom I met in Peace Memorial Park were unanimous in saying that they were pleased about Mr. Roos's presence there. One of my acquaintances in Ohio sent me an email informing me that Ambassador Roos's appearance at the ceremony was receiving attention and that the ceremony and antinuclear actions in Hiroshima and other places were being covered with more energy by the media.

When U.S. leaders visit the A-bombed cities, the question of whether they will express an apology for the atomic bombings tends to draw interest. When the G8 Summit of Lower House Speakers was held in Hiroshima in 2008, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Hiroshima. In return, Yohei Kono, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and laid a wreath of flowers for all the victims of World War II, including U.S. soldiers, and expressed his condolences.

If we seek President Obama's visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan should also volunteer to visit Pearl Harbor as a representative of the government and offer his condolences to the victims as Mr. Kono did. Hiroshima is unique in that it suffered damage from a nuclear weapon, or a weapon of mass destruction. However, reconciliation will be possible only when both sides come closer to one another.

What is important for Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that the leaders of the nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia, visit the A-bombed cities to grasp the real inhumanity of nuclear arms and strengthen their political determination to eliminate these weapons.

Though the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May unanimously adopted the final document, the conference again shed light on the stance of the five nuclear weapon states--the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China--seeking to cling to the privilege of possessing nuclear weapons. The Obama administration, which advocates the pursuit of "a world without nuclear weapons," has pledged to spend 80 billion dollars, or about 7.2 trillion yen, over the next ten years in order to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. Russia, responding to U.S. policy, is aiming to expand and improve its nuclear-weapons-related facilities. The other nuclear weapon states are following suit.

If progress is not made in nuclear disarmament, nuclear proliferation will continue. Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba proclaimed in the Peace Declaration that "now the time is ripe for the Japanese government to take decisive action" with the momentum for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation growing internationally. Mr. Akiba then called strongly on the Japanese government to abandon the U.S. nuclear umbrella and legislate into law the three non-nuclear principles. However, both Prime Minister Kan and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada clarified their positions individually at a news conference, saying that "nuclear deterrence is necessary."

Secretary-General Ban stated in his speech: "We must teach an elemental truth: that status and prestige belong not to those who possess nuclear weapons, but to those who reject them."

How will those dependent on nuclear weapons "lead the effort" to realize a world without nuclear weapons and fulfill their moral responsibility? The only nation to have suffered nuclear attack has kept its nuclear policy unchanged even after the change of government nearly a year ago. I wonder whether we, the citizens of Japan, including hibakusha, must first teach the "elemental truth," noted by Mr. Ban, to our national government.

Yukio Hatoyama, the former prime minister, presented the vision of an "East Asian Community" and expressed his intention to build trust with neighboring Asian nations, including China and South Korea. When Japan becomes independent of the nuclear umbrella, the dispatch of hibakusha overseas, as "antinuclear envoys," an idea advocated by Mr. Kan, will produce better results.

It is now 65 years since Japan experienced the atomic bombing. The momentum for nuclear abolition is surely growing internationally. However, the people of Hiroshima, along with the people of Nagasaki, must step up our efforts to influence the Japanese government and, at the same time, further strengthen ties with the United Nations, non-nuclear weapon states, and international NGOs, in order to realize the elimination of nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on August 8, 2010)