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US-Japan Reconciliation Process over Hiroshima and Nagasaki
[2014.09.19] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

Japan and the United States have held different views regarding the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But over the past two decades efforts have been made on both sides to reconcile over this issue. What progress has been made?

US Ambassadors Visit Hiroshima

In 2014, US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy attended the peace memorial ceremonies held at Hiroshima on August 6 and at Nagasaki on August 9, paying her respects to the victims of the nuclear attacks on those cities. It was the first time for Ambassador Kennedy to attend the ceremonies since assuming her diplomatic post in November of the previous year, but she had already visited Nagasaki last December to lay a wreath of flowers at the Peace Statue in memory of the A-bomb victims.

The custom of US ambassadors to Japan attending the Hiroshima and Nagasaki peace memorial ceremonies is quite recent, dating to 2010, when Ambassador John Roos went to the Hiroshima ceremony. In 2012, Ambassador Roos returned to Hiroshima and also attended the one in Nagasaki, becoming the first US ambassador to do so. And the following year he again visited the two cities in early August for the memorial events. The visit of Caroline Kennedy in 2014 thus marks the fourth time for a US ambassador to visit Hiroshima for the ceremony and the third time to visit Nagasaki.

Although it has now become a matter of course for ambassadors to pay their respects to the victims of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just a decade or two ago it was unthinkable, reflecting the gap that then separated the two countries over how to understand those historical events. This difference in outlooks was the greatest impediment to reaching the sort of reconciliation that was achieved in Europe between former enemies in World War II. The contrasting viewpoints between the Americans and the Japanese were thrown into stark relief in early 1995.

Controversial Smithsonian Exhibit

In 1995, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC had planned to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II with an exhibit tentatively titled “The Crossroads: the End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War” that was to include materials on the first nuclear attack in human history and the nuclear proliferation that later ensued with the start of the Cold War. But the exhibit ended up being canceled as a result of widespread opposition among veterans’ groups, members of Congress, and private-sector organizations.

In stark contrast, just two weeks after the cancellation, a ceremony was held to commemorate the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which razed the German city and killed tens of thousands of its inhabitants. The event was attended not only by German officials but also by former Allied soldiers who took part in the air raid and such dignitaries as the Duke of Kent, attending on behalf of Queen Elizabeth; Sir Peter Inge, British Field Marshal at the time of the ceremony; and John Shalikashvili, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. How can we account for this striking difference in response to the two historic events?

Reconciliation Without Apologies

What really upset the opponents of the planned Smithsonian exhibit was that it indicated the number of victims of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was fierce, deep-rooted opposition to the possibility that the exhibit would state or suggest that US military forces carried out a genocidal attack on civilians. In the United States, the conflict with Japan has been seen as a just war, and the predominant view remains that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to save the lives of Allied troops who would have otherwise perished in the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. Meanwhile, in Japan, there has been a persistent view—shared by people across the spectrum, from pacifists to conservatives—that the attacks constituted a war crime.

This clear conflict in viewpoints contrasts with the situation in Europe, where reconciliation between nations was reached by paying respect to the victims of the war, regardless of their nationality—without drawing a distinction between the victors and the defeated or harping on the question of responsibility for the war. This was an approach that became more prominent after the unification of Germany and the normalization of its diplomatic relations with Eastern European nations. The reconciliation of differences over the issue of the Dresden bombing was one example of this sort of approach. That is, the participants from Britain and the United States in the 1995 ceremony certainly did not apologize to the defeated nation, nor did Germany seek such an apology. Rather, both sides partook in the remembrance of the wartime victims. In this way, they were able to remove a painful emotional thorn that had hampered their relations, allowing them to move forward.

Progress Toward Reconciliation

In the years following the canceled Smithsonian exhibit, slow progress began to be made toward reconciliation between Japan and the United States over the 1945 nuclear attacks. In January 2004, US Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker visited Hiroshima, where he laid a wreath at the Peace Memorial. Just a month earlier, Japan had dispatched Ground Self-Defense Force troops to assist the US occupation of Iraq, symbolizing how close bilateral ties had grown during the “Koizumi-Bush” era after the long period in the 1990s when those bilateral relations seemed to be adrift.

Following Ambassador Baker’s visit, more voices could be heard in Japan calling for the building the sort of reconciliation that was seen in Europe over the issue of the Dresden bombing. Matsuo Fumio, then the Washington correspondent for Kyodo News, proposed that the two leaders jointly lay wreaths at the memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the memorial to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. And he said that the Bush Administration was more or less in favor of that idea. In 2008, at the G8 Tōyako Summit in Hokkaidō, President Bush went so far as to describe the idea as very interesting. His comment showed how much the situation had changed since the time of the Smithsonian’s controversial exhibit.

The following year, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Hiroshima to attend the G8 Summit of Lower House Speakers and laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial along with the speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives, Kōno Yōhei, who was the host of the summit. In return for this gesture, Kōno later traveled to Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial to the USS Arizona. The positions Pelosi and Kōno held at the time placed them third in terms of diplomatic protocol—behind the president and vice-president (who is president of the Senate), and behind the emperor and prime minister in the case of Japan. Clearly the two nations were coming very close to a full reconciliation at the highest official level.

US President Barack Obama visited Japan in 2009. When asked at a press conference during his trip whether he planned to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki, he responded by saying, “I certainly would be honored.”

Apparently, the possibility of a visit by the US president to Hiroshima was being considered at official levels. But Japan’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Yabunaka Mitoji, at the time determined that there was little hope for a US president to issue an apology for the nuclear attacks during the first visit to Hiroshima, so Japan should not try to include it in the scheduled events. The Japanese government apparently abandoned the idea of requesting an apology. We have seen little progress on this diplomatic issue since then. It seems, though, that the voices calling for the US side to take responsibility and apologize now hold sway in Japan, making it hard to arrive at a “Dresden-style” compromise with no distinction drawn between each side.

Matsuo Fumio, who proposed that the attitude to the Dresden bombing serve as a model, thinks that it will be hard for President Obama to visit Hiroshima during his final term in office due to the political situation he now faces domestically. Still, since the time of President Obama’s first visit to Japan, the ambassadors serving under him have visited the peace memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki several times, and it seems likely that further progress will be made in the effort to remove the thorn that has continued to hinder postwar reconciliation between Japan and the United States.

Steps Toward Hiroshima/Nagasaki Reconciliation

January 30, 1995 Smithsonian Institute cancels a planned exhibit to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
February 13, 1995 An event is held in Dresden to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Allied air raid on the German city.
December 15, 2003 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force troops are dispatched to Iraq.
January 29, 2004 Ambassador Howard Baker visits Hiroshima, where he lays a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
September 2, 2008 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Hiroshima to attend the G8 Summit of Lower House Speakers and lays a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
December 29, 2008 Kōno Yōhei, speaker of Japan’s lower house, lays a wreath at the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
November 13, 2009 President Barack Obama visits Japan for a US-Japan summit. At a joint press conference, he states, “I certainly would be honored” to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
August 6, 2010 Ambassador John Roos attends the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima.
August 6, 2012 Ambassador Roos attends the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima.
August 9, 2012 Ambassador Roos attends the peace memorial ceremony in Nagasaki.
August 6, 2013 Ambassador Roos attends the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima.
August 9, 2013 Ambassador Roos attends the peace memorial ceremony in Nagasaki.
December 10, 2013 Ambassador Caroline Kennedy visits Nagasaki and lays a wreath at the Peace Statue.
August 6, 2014 Ambassador Kennedy attends the peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima.
August 9, 2014 Ambassador Kennedy attends the peace memorial ceremony in Nagasaki.

(Banner photograph: US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy visits the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. © Jiji Press.)

  • [2014.09.19]
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