For U.S. presidents, Hiroshima is a dreaded invitation

Schoolchildren in Japan visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. President Obama may visit someday, but not during this trip.
Schoolchildren in Japan visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. President Obama may visit someday, but not during this trip. (Blaine Harden/the Washington Post)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 13, 2009

HIROSHIMA, JAPAN -- An inconvenient invitation awaits President Obama when he lands Friday in Japan. It's one that no sitting U.S. president has accepted and that Obama's tight schedule in Japan cannot accommodate.

Yet many Japanese have been talking about the invitation for much of this year, and it remains open: Come see what a U.S. atomic bomb did 64 years ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Obama -- maker of stirring speeches about "a world without nuclear weapons" and surprise winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize -- has raised expectations across Japan that he would break with the past and visit cities devastated by a weapon that only the United States has dropped on human beings.

"What's done is done," said Haruna Udo, 19, who was born in Hiroshima and attends college here. "I don't need an apology. But if Obama hasn't seen what an A-bomb can do to you, then he should come and look."

Uneasy relationship

Obama is expected to spend less than 24 hours in Tokyo, the initial stop of his first trip to East Asia as president, and he has said that "this time" he cannot accept the invitation. But in a television interview broadcast Tuesday in Japan, Obama said he "would be honored to have the opportunity to visit those cities at some point during my presidency."

Japan's focus on the possibility of a presidential visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is symptomatic of the emerging strains and enduring strengths of the United States' relationship with its closest ally in Asia.

Obama is deeply admired in Japan, with 85 percent of the population confident he will do the right thing in world affairs, according to a Pew Research Center survey in July. A year earlier, only 25 percent of those polled had similar confidence in President George W. Bush.

The United States itself, however, is less trusted. More than two-thirds of those surveyed here by Pew said that U.S. economic influence is negative for Japan, a likely reflection of how the sudden collapse last fall in Japanese exports to the United States pushed this trade-dependent nation into its deepest economic hole in more than half a century.

Newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, even though he publicly professes admiration for Obama, is trying to break free of what he has described as Japan's "somewhat passive" dealings with the United States, which is treaty-bound to defend this country in time of war.

To that end, Japan will soon end an eight-year mission in the Indian Ocean to refuel warships supporting U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. It is also trying to reopen a $26 billion military package that involves moving a U.S. Marine Corps air base inside Japan and transferring 8,000 U.S. Marines from Japan to Guam. The United States and Japan agreed on the deal in 2006, and the Obama administration has bristled at Hatoyama's desire to renegotiate part of it.

The unresolved issue has become a serious sticking point in the Japan-U.S. alliance and is certain to be a focus of Obama's talks in Tokyo.

Ground zero

What is unlikely to be an official agenda item in those conversations is Obama's invitation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, the mere possibility of these visits is fueling newspaper editorials, classroom debates and dinner-table arguments. Obama's Nobel has upped the speculative ante.

"Many of the past Nobel Peace laureates have visited ground zero," said an editorial in the Chugoku newspaper, which is based in Hiroshima, about 530 miles southwest of Tokyo. "We urge him to go and see the place himself and renew his commitment to a nuclear-free world."

More important than the Nobel, in the view of many Japanese, was Obama's April speech in Prague, which committed the United States "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." In that speech, Obama said that the United States "has a moral responsibility to act" because it is "the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon."

In Hiroshima, those words astonished and delighted bomb survivors such as Sunao Tsuboi, who was 20 years old and about a half-mile away from ground zero when the A-bomb exploded. Heat from the blast burned skin off his face, back and arms. It melted away his ears. He has since had prostate cancer, colon cancer and chronic anemia requiring blood transfusions.

"Obama's position on these weapons is very close to ours," said Tsuboi, now 84 and the leader of a bomb survivor group. "Surviving victims of the A-bomb don't have very long to live. I think Obama knows that. We have high hopes that he might stop by."

But in the more than six decades since much of Hiroshima was incinerated, hope has not yet overcome political realities that have limited the options of Japanese and U.S. leaders in addressing lingering issues from World War II.

No sitting Japanese prime minister has visited Pearl Harbor or apologized for the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that drew the United States into war.

In the United States, close attention to the suffering of Japanese bomb victims has sometimes been viewed as inappropriate criticism of the government's decision to use the bomb. In 1995, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, under pressure from 81 members of Congress, scrapped an exhibit that raised questions about the morality of dropping the bomb. In 2003, the museum rejected suggestions that a display of the Enola Gay, the airplane that bombed Hiroshima, should mention how many people died.

The bomb dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, killed an estimated 140,000 people. Nagasaki was bombed three days later, killing about 80,000. Six days after that, World War II ended with Japan's unconditional surrender.

In Hiroshima, the invitation to Obama will remain open, but he is hardly alone in not finding the time to accept it. According to the city's peace promotion department, no sitting head of state from any nation with nuclear weapons has visited the memorial, which lists the names of the dead.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company