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Barack Obama’s Historic Hiroshima Visit

On the afternoon of May 27, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, he laid flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. He then delivered a speech to an audience including hibakusha bomb survivors and the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offering his prayers for all victims of World War II and reiterating his desire to pursue a world without nuclear weapons.

More than seven decades have passed since the bomb code-named Little Boy was dropped on the city on August 6, 1945, ushering in the nuclear age—one marked by the fear of this new type of weapon. Today’s visit to Hiroshima by the leader of the only nation ever to have used atomic bombs in war and his prayer offered to the dead represent, according to Hiroshima Mayor Matsui Kazumi, “a historic first step toward an international effort toward abolishing nuclear weapons, which is a wish of all mankind.”

From the Summit to the Cenotaph

US President Barack Obama speaks in Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. (© Jiji)

President Obama was in Japan for the Group of Seven summit meeting, which took place on May 26–27 in Ise-Shima, Mie Prefecture, some 400 kilometers to the east of Hiroshima. Following a Thursday morning visit to Ise Shrine, where Prime Minister Abe welcomed his counterparts to Japan, the leaders engaged in two days of meetings and working meals before wrapping up the summit with a joint statement focusing on the global economy, as well as regional security issues, climate change, and other challenges facing their countries.

President Obama flew from the summit venue to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, a short distance from Hiroshima, where he addressed the Marines briefly, thanking them for their defense of freedom and their disaster relief efforts following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku and the quakes last month in Kumamoto. The president and Prime Minister Abe then rejoined in Hiroshima, where they paid their respects together at the Cenotaph.

There Obama delivered a speech in which he stated: “We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” Noting that the Hiroshima dead included “over 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner,” he called on “the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies” as a stark reminder that humanity’s genius and scientific curiosity have all too often produced inhumanity as their result.

A Long-Awaited Visit

Reactions to Obama’s comments were warm, as has been the reaction to his early May announcement that he would become the first sitting US president to visit the city after wrapping up the G7 events. Hibakusha representatives who were on hand responded positively, and 91-year-old Tsuboi Sunao, a bomb survivor and cochair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, spoke with the president for some moments following his speech, gripping his hand and embracing him before Obama left.

President Obama exchanges words with the hibakusha Tsuboi Sunao after his speech. (© Jiji)

The amateur historian Mori Shigeaki, who spent decades tracking down the families of 12 American prisoners of war who died in the Hiroshima bombing, was one of a small group of guests invited to hear Obama’s speech.

Hibakusha and historian Mori Shigeaki receives thanks for finding the families of American A-bomb victims and having their names inscribed on the list of hibakusha. (© Jiji)

“Few people in the United States know about their countrymen who died in Hiroshima,” Mori told on the morning before the president’s arrival. “When President Obama lays flowers at the memorial today, I hope it opens a path for more Americans to learn the truth about their own soldiers killed by the bomb.” Following the speech, the president thanked Mori for his tireless work to bring the truth about the American bomb victims to their families, embracing him as well.

Another Call for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

Over the years Japan has stressed its status as the only country to come under nuclear attack, calling on world leaders to visit the bombed cities. From nuclear-armed states, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Nagasaki in 1991, during his term as president of the Soviet Union, and Hiroshima a year later, after leaving office. Former US President Jimmy Carter paid his respects at Hiroshima in 1984.

Japan was not looking for an official apology from President Obama during his visit today, and none was offered. Also left unmentioned in his speech at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was the question of whether the bombings had been justified.

One focus of his comments was rather on the threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons and the need to find a path forward to doing away with them completely: “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” In this he echoed his speech delivered in Prague in April 2009, just three months into his first term, when he stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” This stance, and his concrete steps toward nuclear arms reduction thereafter, won him the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

Obama’s Hiroshima visit today is the culmination of a willingness in recent years by US officials to attend ceremonies in the city. In 2010 John Roos became the first US ambassador to Japan to attend the annual remembrance ceremony held on August 6, the anniversary of the bombing. From 2012 onward the American ambassador has been a steady presence at the ceremonies held in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in April this year, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial Park and toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum following the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting held in that city.

Below we carry the full text of President Obama’s remarks today.

  • [2016.05.27]
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