The Presidential Path to Hiroshima

An Obama Apology to Japan?

A young girl folds her hands in prayer as Japanese paper lanterns are floated down Motoyasu River, near ground zero, for the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima August 6, 2002. Eriko Sugita / Reuters

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama made a speech in Prague in which he advocated “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Since then, many Japanese have wondered whether Obama might become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. In May, he will travel to Japan to attend the G-7 summit in Ise-Shima, which has fueled speculation that he might visit the atomic-bombing site during his trip. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in Japan this month for the G-7 foreign ministers’ meetings, will visit Hiroshima along with the other delegates. Does this historic visit by a U.S. secretary of state herald an Obama visit to follow? Although it’s just a short train ride from Ise-Shima, a presidential visit to Hiroshima would be a complex and controversial journey.

Some commentators argue that a U.S. reckoning with the atomic bombings is long overdue. For example, Christian Appy, a historian at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, has questioned whether the United States will ever really absorb how the bombs “instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the ‘black rain’ that spread radiation and killed even more people—slowly and painfully—leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?”

Many in Japan would see a U.S. presidential visit as encouraging such a reckoning. Tokyo has welcomed visits by former U.S. Ambassador John Roos (in 2010, he was the first U.S. official to attend the August 6 Peace Memorial ceremony in Hiroshima) and by the current U.S ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. The White House has received thousands of letters from civic leaders, disarmament activists, schoolchildren, and others urging a presidential visit. A “Letters to Obama” campaign, organized by a Hiroshima broadcasting company, collected invitations from scores

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