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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Hiroshima Visit: Would It Help — or Hurt?

May 11 , 2016
  • Xu Duo

    Fox Fellow, Yale University

Barack Obama plans to visit Hiroshima on May 27th when he attends the G7 summit held later this month in Japan. Obama would become the first sitting U.S. president to make such a visit, over 70 years after America dropped an atomic bomb that obliterated the entire city and killing tens of thousands of people. The announcement came after Secretary of State John Kerry laid a wreath at Hiroshima’s peace park last month, a move seen as paving the way for Obama’s own trip.

There have been heated debates in America surrounding the possibility of a sitting president’s visit to Hiroshima. Supporters applaud it as an opportunity for America to pay homage to innocent people killed in its nuclear atrocity, while opponents believe such a move, even if short of an explicit apology, would invariably be seen as America acknowledging that dropping the bomb is neither justifiable nor moral, thus undermining the country’s stature as a victor in World War II and challenging the nation’s collective memory.

Debates on the other side of the Pacific are beyond the scope of this article. (For sure, America has a whole set of tough questions to wrestle with concerning the use of atomic bombs). Let us now just look at the issue from the Japanese perspective and ask this question: would Obama’s visit help or hurt Japan?

For people who support the visit, Obama’s trip would help Japan’s efforts against nuclear arms. There is simply no better candidate than Obama, no less than a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts to promote nuclear disarmament, to drive home the message. Especially faced with repeated nuclear tests by North Korea, this overture would draw a stark contrast between Japan, a democracy dedicated to a peaceful region free of nuclear weapons, and North Korea, a rogue state bent on wreaking nuclear havoc on its neighbors. Obama’s visit is also capable of strengthening the U.S.-Japanese alliance and shoring up the public support for Japan’s expanded military role in the face of a stronger China in East Asia.

All these are solid arguments, yet there does exist something that might work against Japan’s calculus.

For starters, this move might subvert the current government’s nuclear energy policy inadvertently. Shortly after the disastrous Fukushima nuclear meltdown, public opposition against nuclear power became so loud that the then-DPJ government vowed to scrap nuclear energy in the decades after 2030. The pledge, however, evaporated when the DPJ was trounced by the pro-nuclear LDP in the 2012 elections. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, returned to the premiership, is now aiming to have nuclear production supply some 20 percent of Japan’s electricity demand by 2030, and the reopening of nuclear power plants across the country is well underway despite strong public opposition. Against such a backdrop, a visit to Hiroshima by a leader of the world’s super atomic-holding country may call up memories about the murderous aspects of nuclear power, and spotlight Japan’s anti-nuclear movement. Though the anti-nuclear weapons coalition is separate from that of anti-nuclear energy, the distinction is not so clearly cut in Japan and the two often join hands to promote a common agenda. Obama’s visit might inject fresh momentum and offer much-needed traction to the anti-nuclear campaign, about which Abe’s administration would have many misgivings.

Moreover, Obama’s visit may backfire and hurt Japan by touching off another inconvenient chain reaction. Although both the Japanese and American governments are going out of their way to stress that Obama would not offer an apology, nor would Japan expect one, it is really difficult not to connect the two. Any visit by a state leader is rich in symbolism, and Obama’s visit is would be imbued with profound nuances and connotations. This is why it is so controversial in America in the first place, and in Japan as well.

An incident 22 years ago offers a perfect example to illustrate this point. In 1994, the Japanese emperor was scheduled to visit Pearl Harbor on a state trip to Hawaii, but it was canceled at the last minute. The Japanese government characteristically shunned any explanation of the sudden turnabout, but there was little doubt that the biggest reason was to avoid connecting the emperor’s visit with a Japanese apology for its attack on America in 1941. Some Japanese scholars who opposed the visit from the start, in a highly untypical outburst of honnei (true intentions), defended the government’s stance by blurting out “since no American presidents ever pay a visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, why should our emperor visit their Pearl Harbor?”

By the same token, if a U.S. president now does visit Hiroshima, would that mean Japan’s prime minister, or even the emperor, will be willing to pray at Pearl Harbor in return? Furthermore, even if that were the case, what would other Asian countries, nations that were once subject to Japan’s acts of brutality, say about that? Wouldn’t their request that Japanese leaders visit Nanking, Manila or Singapore be equally, if not more, justifiable? In other worlds, Obama’s visit would force the Japanese government to confront its own barbarism and reconcile its “negative past” with other countries once again.

Most significant, this obsession with the past, signified by insistence on foreign leaders’ visits to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, strikes a jarring note against Abe’s own rallying call of “facing the future” (未来志向). Ever since he began his second term as prime minister, Abe has pushed forward a platform of building up a new Japan in a new century. We can get a glimpse into this forward-lookingmindset by looking at the process of writing up his keynote speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II. In the run-up to the final speech, Abe had on various occasions unwittingly gave away comments like “there is still no conclusive agreement, academically or internationally, on the definition of aggression”, “(the definition of aggression) differs in perspectives (of different countries)”, or “there is no need to repeat the exact words used in the (former prime minister Tomiichi) Murayama talk.” There is nothing wrong about “facing the future” — actually it is something that deserves much applause given Japan’s current situation. However, if Abe’s “forward-looking” means isolating the future from the inconvenient past, how could Japan be in a position to insist on others facing up to their ugly history?

Still more troubling is the tension between the consciousness of victim and that of victimizer embedded in Japan’s mental fabric. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the very symbol of Japan’s martyrdom during World War II. Fixating on the nuclear trauma while blotting out recollections of Japan’s victimization of others helps to weaken or even challenge Japan’s sense about its role as a victimizer. It is beyond doubt that people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are victims, but victims of what? Of nuclear arms, pure and simple, but also of victims of Japan’s embarking on the militarist road, of its needlessly prolonging a losing war, and of the government’s neglect and belated assistance in the aftermath. That’s the hard questions the country has to grapple with first. Victim or victimizer, nothing is more regrettable than failing to understand the reasons leading up to the Hiroshima tragedy.

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