Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the hallowed ground of Hiroshima, site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack. Obama arrived at Hiroshima’s memorial park on Friday. (May 27)AP
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of American POWs who died in Japanese camps during World War II.
HIROSHIMA, Japan — President Obama made an emotional and historic visit to this once-shattered city Friday, embracing survivors of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb blast and renewing calls for an end to nuclear weapons.
He did not, however, apologize for the decision to drop the bomb.
“We come to Hiroshima to ponder the terrible forces unleashed in the not so distant past. We come to mourn the dead,” Obama said in a speech at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
An estimated 140,000 people — including a dozen captured American airmen and thousands of forced laborers from Korea — were killed in the world’s first atomic bombing at Hiroshima. Another 70,000 people died in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki three days later.
Friday’s visit was the first by a sitting U.S. head of state and appeared carefully crafted to focus on reconciliation, rather than troubling questions of wartime blame or responsibility.
Atomic bomb survivor groups in the past have called for the United States to apologize for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which they call inhumane. Some American veterans and former prisoners of war have opposed an apology, arguing that the twin bombings saved lives by hastening the end of a long and cruel war.
Japan surrendered unconditionally on Aug. 15, 1945, nine days after the Hiroshima bombing.
During the hour-long visit, Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid wreaths at a cenotaph dedicated to bombing victims, toured the peace park and an adjoining museum and met privately with bomb survivors.
The park is located near ground zero of the Hiroshima bombing and features the iconic “A-bomb dome” – a burned out commercial exhibition building that was one of the few structures near the epicenter that remained standing.
The cenotaph includes the names of all victims of the Hiroshima bombing, including 12 American airman who were being held in the city at the time of the attack.
In a poignant moment after his speech, Obama shared an extended public embrace with 79-year-old Shigeaki Mori. The Hiroshima bomb survivor spent more than 35 years tracking down relatives of the American airmen, whose fate had remained unknown for decades.
In his speech, Obama said Mori “sought out the families of Americans who were killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.”
Barry Frechette, a filmmaker who produced a recent documentary on Mori’s decades-long quest, said Mori and other survivors are not looking for an apology.
“The most important thing we can do is recognize what happened, and understand the horrible consequences of war,” Frechette said in an email interview from his home in the United States. “We heard from U.S. POW families about how terrible a sacrifice was paid in the loss of their loved ones. But we also heard what terrible consequences were paid on the Japanese side, too, especially to civilians.”
Obama and Abe spoke before about 100 invited guests, including aging bomb victims and local high school students, and hundreds of Japanese and foreign journalists.
The peace park, one of the most popular visitor sites in Japan, was closed to the public Friday as a security precaution. But large and seemingly supportive crowds began gathering outside the grounds early in the day.
Matt Steckling, 25, a Chicago native who has lived in Hiroshima for about a year and a half, was among people in the large crowd just prior to Obama’s arrival and said he was curious to witness the event.
“It’s going to mean a lot for people here to see him come and lay flowers and pay his respects. No one expects him to apologize — the gesture, the visit alone, is enough,” Steckling said.
Obama’s visit followed a two-day summit with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies in Ise-Shima in central Japan. Anticipation had been growing that Obama would visit Hiroshima after Secretary of State John Kerry become the highest-ranking Cabinet member to visit the city last month.
Recent polls have shown that most Japanese wanted Obama to visit Hiroshima, but no longer thought an apology was necessary.
Kinue Tokudome, executive director of the U.S.-Japan Dialogue on POWs, said she was disappointed that no American former prisoners of war were invited to attend the ceremony but hoped Obama’s visit would have a positive influence. More than 10,000 Americans died in Japanese camps during World War II, often under appalling conditions.
A U.S. POW support group announced last week that the White House had invited a former POW to accompany Obama during Friday’s visit. But the White House later said that no such invitation had been extended.
“I believe president Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is a good thing and hope that it will encourage us, Japanese and Americans, to have more open and honest dialogue on our shared history,” she said.
“Our visit to Hiroshima will honor all those who were lost in World War II and reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said at a press conference this week.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize largely on his stated goal of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons.