Former vice minister of Foreign Affairs sheds light on Hiroshima visit by U.S. president

Interview with Mitoji Yabunaka, former vice minister of Foreign Affairs

by Kohei Okata, Staff Writer

Three years will soon have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama made a widely-publicized address in Prague in which he stated that realizing “a world without nuclear weapons” was one of his ideals. Despite the lofty rhetoric, the fact remains that any momentum gained back then has been lost. The United States and the international community have not moved a single step forward toward the goal of nuclear abolition. Against this backdrop, what can be done to kick-start the process of nuclear disarmament, with the United States taking the lead? And what would it mean if the U.S. president paid a visit to Hiroshima? Mitoji Yabunaka, 64, the former vice minister of Foreign Affairs, sat down for an interview with the Chugoku Shimbun to discuss such questions.

Following the successful conclusion to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, convened in 2010, the process of nuclear disarmament has not moved forward in the way that people had hoped.
The next steps are hard. One issue is whether there will be another arms reduction treaty after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks [New START] between the United States and Russia. A second concern is the commitment to nuclear disarmament that the nuclear weapon states must make, in line with the core tenets of the NPT. If some nations add to their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, this poses a serious problem.

How can the A-bombed nation of Japan help?
Though it has the technological capability, Japan has made the decision not to possess nuclear weapons. In a sense, Japan is an example for the world. Japan must continue to call strongly for nuclear disarmament. I myself have been making this appeal.

It seems, though, that Japan holds no persuasive influence, since it relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Some of Japan’s neighbors are in possession of nuclear weapons, so it’s true that Japan must maintain its own national security. At the same time, Japan has a responsibility to appeal for its ideals. Our nation should not hesitate to speak out in this way. One of the rare examples where Japan and the United States, allied nations, have differed in their positions is the resolution for nuclear abolition put forward by Japan at the United Nations. Although the United States was initially opposed to the motion, it altered course and become one of the nations which ended up supporting it. Japan must continue such efforts.

Isn’t it a contradiction to appeal for the elimination of nuclear weapons while standing beneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella?
I don’t think so. The important thing is appealing for nuclear abolition with conviction while taking the view that Japan’s case is not a contradiction.

It’s vital that world leaders understand the horror of the atomic bombing deep down by experiencing the A-bombed city. Many hope that President Obama will pay a visit to Hiroshima.
I believe he should visit Hiroshima, too. Hiroshima is the most important city in the A-bombed nation of Japan. I hope the president will visit Hiroshima out of the common desire of humanity to see nuclear weapons eliminated from the earth.

Mr. Yabunaka, didn’t you convey to John Roos, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, that you felt it was “premature” for the president to visit Hiroshima prior to Mr. Obama’s first trip to Japan in November 2009? This was revealed in a U.S. government document posted on the WikiLeaks website in September 2011.
I didn’t use the word “premature.” What I recall saying is that I told the ambassador it wouldn’t be appropriate to make a visit to Hiroshima to offer an apology for the atomic bombing.

Could you elaborate?
At the time, the idea of “mutual visits” emerged where the Japanese emperor and prime minister would visit Pearl Harbor and the U.S. president would visit Hiroshima. But I didn’t see that as a good idea because “mutual visits” of this sort would be perceived as apologies for the past. Current relations between Japan and the United States are not in need of such visits. I felt a visit by the president to Hiroshima should be for the purpose of nuclear abolition, and this is what I told Mr. Roos.

Did you request that Mr. Roos seek a visit to Hiroshima by the president?
The Japanese vice minister of Foreign Affairs and foreign ambassadors discuss a variety of issues. I recall having a conversation with Mr. Roos in which I suggested that such a visit by the president might be beneficial. It was my opinion, not a formal request.

There were hopes that Mr. Obama would visit Hiroshima when he visited Japan in November 2010 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (APEC).
The year 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and a full-blown visit by the president to commemorate the occasion might have been desirable. The idea that was floated had the president visiting Japan for several days, rather than simply attending a one-day conference, and for part of that stay, he would come to Hiroshima. It was the scenario desired by those involved in the planning, but Japan-U.S. relations were somewhat strained at the time, so unfortunately it did not come to pass.

I imagine the idea in the United States that the atomic bombings were justified also poses an obstacle.
It’s not something that should concern us on the Japanese side. When the president spoke in Prague, he declared that a world without nuclear weapons is humanity’s goal, though some in the United States hold a different view. Japan should just be straightforward about conveying its wish: President Obama, who holds the hope of eliminating nuclear arms, will do the natural thing and visit Hiroshima, strengthen his resolve to create “a world without nuclear weapons,” and make this appeal to the world.


Mitoji Yabunaka
Mr. Yabunaka joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1969. While serving as the director-general of the Asia and Oceania Affairs Bureau, Mr. Yabunaka represented Japan at the six-party talks involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In May 2004, he attended the summit meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-il, then the North Korean leader, during Mr. Koizumi’s second visit to North Korea. Mr. Yabunaka assumed the office of vice minister of Foreign Affairs in January 2008. After the change of government that occurred in September 2009, Katsuya Okada, the minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, charged Mr. Yabunaka with investigating the “secret nuclear agreement” struck between the Japanese and American governments. The existence of this secret agreement had long been denied by the Liberal Democratic Party. Mr. Yabunaka left his vice minister post in August 2010 and currently serves as an adviser for the Nomura Research Institute. His publications include “Kokka no Meiun” (“Fate of a Nation”).

(Originally published on March 14, 2012)