President Obama's Hiroshima Visit
May 11, 2016
In August 1945, the United States became the only country to detonate nuclear weapons in a military campaign. More than 200,000 people died in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Japan surrendered less than a week later, formally ending the war in the Pacific. President Barack Obama will be the first ever sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima when he attends the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Japan later this month (May 26 and 27). This historic visit is an opportunity to underscore Obama’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and to reduce the risks from those weapons as long as they exist. It may be the bookend to Obama’s landmark speech in Prague in April 2009.
Q1: Why will President Obama visit Hiroshima?
A1: President Obama has travelled to Japan three or four times during his presidency, and each time, Japan has requested he visit Hiroshima . Until now, Obama, like others before him, has declined the invitation to participate in what would undoubtedly be a politically and emotionally charged visit to the site of the 1945 bombing. Timing may be all—in the last year of Obama’s presidency, such a visit is likely to be viewed as a fitting conclusion to Obama’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons, announced in a speech in Prague in April 2009.
Other factors could play into Obama’s acceptance of the invitation: last year marked the 70th anniversary of the bombings. There are an estimated 183,000 people who reportedly survived the bombings who now average 80 years old. Many are actively involved in sharing their stories with visitors to the cities, though every year there are fewer people to tell their stories. Last year, Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida urged global leaders at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to “witness with their own eyes the realities of the atomic bombings. ”
Q2: What are the planned activities during his visit?
A2: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at yesterday’s press conference that he will travel with President Obama to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. The Japanese government and the White House have not provided the specific schedule, but Obama will lay flowers at the memorial cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and give a speech.
Q3: What can we expect from his visit?
A3: On May 2, 2016, the White House said the United States does not owe Japan a formal apology for using the atomic bomb . In April, Mayor Kazumi Matsui of Hiroshima likewise ruled out the possibility of a U.S. apology.
Instead, officials are likely to reiterate their commitment to reducing the risks from nuclear weapons. Both countries face criticism and controversy regarding nuclear weapons. Despite his support for nuclear disarmament, President Obama has agreed to spend approximately $1 trillion to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons over the next 30 years . This modernization includes redesigned nuclear warheads, as well as new nuclear bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles.
Japan, which signed the NPT in 1970 as a nonnuclear weapon state, has also provided additional assurances by adhering to the so-called Three Non-Nuclear Principles of not producing, not possessing, and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons since the 1970s. Despite having been the only country to experience the horrors of nuclear war, Japan’s nuclear intentions are still sometimes questioned. For example, Japan’s plutonium stock ( 47.8 tons as of the end of 2014) is widely viewed as contributing to a latent nuclear weapon capability. The lack of a credible plan in the current Japanese nuclear energy environment to utilize the plutonium in civilian power reactors makes its neighbors nervous. In addition, statements like the recent one (April 1, 2016) by the Abe cabinet that the Japanese Constitution does not necessarily ban the possession of nuclear weapons, as long as they are restricted to a minimum necessary level for self-defense, raise significant concerns about Japan’s intentions. Responding to questions submitted to the Lower House of the Japanese Diet, Abe government officials stated that Japan would never violate its obligations under the NPT.
Yukari Sekiguchi is a research associate, and Sharon Squassoni a senior fellow and director, of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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