After being taught that atomic bombs are inhumane and terrible, high school student Kaho Matsuki’s first reaction when she heard US President Barack Obama would visit the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima was that he should apologize for America’s use of the weapons.
But then the Tokyo native remembered her emotional meeting with atomic bomb survivors at a nursing home in Hiroshima, which she visited last year during a school trip to hear their stories.
“What struck me most was that those elderly ladies really wanted us to know what they went through so the same mistake would never be repeated, rather than wanting to get (America) to apologize,” Matsuki, 17, said Wednesday.
Japanese are widely welcoming Obama’s decision to become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, with few public demands for an apology.
Even those who want one realize that such a demand would have ruled out a US presidential visit.
“Of course everyone wants to hear an apology. Our families were killed,” said Hiroshi Shimizu, general secretary of the Hiroshima Confederation of A-Bomb Sufferers Organizations.
“However, by setting conditions we limit world leaders from visiting, so we decided to eliminate that,” he said in Tokyo. “We would first like for them to come and stand on the grounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and take a good look at what is in front of them and give it good thought.”
Obama will visit Hiroshima with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 27, after attending the annual Group of Seven summit in Japan. The city was nearly destroyed by a US atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Some 140,000 people – mostly civilians – were killed, and others have endured after-effects to this day.
The US dropped a second devastating atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki three days later. Japan announced it would surrender on August 15, 1945, ending World War II.
A poll released this week by public broadcaster NHK found that 70 per cent of Japanese want Obama to visit Hiroshima, and only 2 per cent were opposed.
“I don’t live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but I am overcome with emotion when I think that someone who wants to offer understanding is finally about to arrive,” said Mieko Mori, a 74-year-old woman who stopped at a memorial in Tokyo to pray for the victims.
The visit is contentious in the US, where many believe the atomic bombs hastened the end of the war, saving countless other lives, though some historians say the US was eager to use the weapons and Japan would have surrendered soon anyway.
The White House went out its way to stress Obama will not apologize. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday that Obama would “not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” and instead spotlight the toll of war and offer a forward-looking vision of a non-nuclear world.
Since the bombings, most survivors have chosen to be living testimonies of the horrors of atomic weapons to remind the world to never repeat nuclear war.
“It seems there is a consensus that insisting on an apology would be counterproductive,” said Chris Winkler, a Hokkaido University professor of Japanese studies. “From the Japanese perspective, it is certainly preferable to have a US president visit Hiroshima even without an apology in his luggage, than him not coming at all.”
Given the divided US public opinion, an apology demand could have torpedoed Obama’s visit, or renewed resentment toward Japan over its mistreatment of American prisoners of war and other sensitive issues, countering government initiatives to strengthen the bilateral alliance, he said.
“I hear America is still divided over atomic bombings, but it’s been almost 71 years since the war ended, and I think it’s about time Obama should be able to visit Hiroshima,” said Kohachiro Hayashi, a retired teacher who was reading a newspaper at a Tokyo park.
Hayashi, 59, said asking for an apology would only cause a fruitless debate over various wartime acts.
“We should just accept his visit as a gesture of sincerity,” he said. “It’s OK as long as he makes clear his commitment never to use atomic weapons. …I hope he will learn what happened and feel a little bit of it himself while being there.”
Another retired teacher, Takatsugu Sakamoto, 80, said demanding an apology would be rude. He said that Japan was also trying to develop nuclear weapons but Americans were faster. “Mr. Obama doesn’t need to apologize,'” he said.
But the praise for Obama could quickly turn into criticism if victims’ groups and others don’t see concrete steps taken toward further nuclear disarmament, Winkler said.