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Tokyo and Washington hope the gesture will showcase their alliance and invigorate nuclear disarmament efforts.
Even before it occurred, though, the visit stirred debate, with critics accusing both sides of having selective memories and pointing to paradoxes in policies relying on nuclear deterrence while calling for an end to atomic arms.
The two governments hope Obama’s tour of Hiroshima underscores a new level of reconciliation and tighter ties between the former enemies.
“We come to ponder the terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past,” Obama said after laying a wreath at a peace memorial. “We come to mourn the dead.”
Before laying the wreath at a peace memorial, Obama visited a museum where haunting displays include photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs.
Aides had said Obama’s main goal in Hiroshima was to showcase his nuclear disarmament agenda, for which he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
“We remember all the innocents killed in the arc of that terrible war,” a solemn Obama said. “We have a shared responsibility to look directly in the eye of history. We must ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
Obama said earlier he would honour all who died in World War Two but would not apologise for the bombing. The city of Nagasaki was hit by a second nuclear bomb on August 9, 1945, and Japan surrendered six days later.
A majority of Americans see the bombings as having been necessary to end the war and save lives, although some historians question that view. Most Japanese believe they were unjustified.
The White House had debated whether the time was right for Obama to break a decades-old taboo on presidential visits to Hiroshima, especially in an election year.
But Obama’s aides defused most negative reaction from military veterans’ groups by insisting he would not second-guess the decision to drop the bombs.
“I will not revisit the decision to use atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I will point out that Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe and I coming to Hiroshima together shows the world the possibility of reconciliation – that even former adversaries can become the strongest of allies,” Obama said in written responses to questions published in the Asahi newspaper on Friday.
Apology ‘not necessary’
On August 6, 1945, US forces dropped a uranium bomb on the city of Hiroshima. In calling on Japan to surrender, US president Harry S. Truman warned: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Three days later the United States dropped a plutonium implosion bomb on the city of Nagasaki.
Japan announced its surrender to the Allies on August 15, less than a week after Nagasaki was bombed. The country signed the official Instrument of Surrender that effectively ended World War II on September 2.
An estimated 70,000 people died in the initial blast at Hiroshima, with deaths from the resulting fallout and radiation surpassing more than 100,000, according to figures from the US department of energy. Up to 40,000 were killed instantly when Nagasaki was bombed, with tens of thousands more dying as a direct result of the bombing in the years following. Many died from the effect of burns or radiation sickness as well as malnutrition after their cities were reduced to rubble.
Most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima was a significant industrial and military centre that housed several military units. Nagasaki was one of the largest seaports in southern Japan and was of strategic importance due to its role in the production of military equipment and ship building.
Japanese governments have expressed remorse for the country’s wartime actions in the past, but the Abe administration is sometimes seen as returning to Japan’s more nationalist tendencies.
Historian Sven Saaler at Tokyo’s Sophia University told ABC that, under the circumstances, a US apology might be inappropriate. “In particular right now, when Japan has a government that is … backpedaling in terms of apologising for the war, if now the US apologised, that [would be] a weird signal in this current situation,” Saaler said.
While Obama won’t apologise for the use of nuclear weapons, he will stress the importance of eliminating them, White House officials said. Obama has said one of his goals was to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.
Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Abe said that an apology wasn’t necessary and that he would like to make Obama’s visit an “occasion for the US and Japan to mourn all of the victims [of the atomic bombings] together”.