Obama likely to focus on future in Hiroshima visit

Ethan Segal

President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Hiroshima, although not without certain risks, is timely. Some might even see it as overdue. Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki since those cities were obliterated by American atomic bombs in 1945. Both cities eventually rebuilt successfully, and many of their citizens and elected leaders have dedicated themselves to reminding the world of the horrors of war and advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, right, escorts U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond at the memorial for the 1945 bombing victims on April 11. President Obama visits Hiroshima this week.

But given the location and the possibility of criticism at home and abroad, why has the president agreed to visit Hiroshima, and why now?

The risks are, first, that the visit will strain U.S.-Japan relations by reopening old wounds and, second, that it will invite denunciation from the political right in each country.

The first concern appears negligible. At the moment, U.S.-Japan relations are, for the most part, good, and seem likely to stay that way in the near future. Japan is not perceived to be an economic threat as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, and is part of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which, if ratified, would strengthen its trade connections to the United States and 10 other countries.

In addition, Japan and the United States share concerns about an increasingly aggressive China. The Chinese government has been asserting claims to small islands that lie outside its generally recognized territorial waters — and seems willing to risk confrontations with the United States and Japan to defend those claims. Such concerns make it in both countries’ best interests to continue their close political and military ties. Japan has been one of the most reliable American allies since regaining its sovereignty in 1952.

The second concern, however, is far from negligible. Right-wing political rivals and pundits in the United States have long accused Obama of being too apologetic in his diplomacy. In this election year’s politically contentious climate, it seems almost certain that they will interpret his Hiroshima visit as another apology that makes America appear weak.

Meanwhile, members of Japan’s political right will also seek to portray the president’s visit as an apology because it would support their twisted memory of Japan as the victim of World War II. Both claims are utterly ridiculous: Obama’s advisers have made it very clear that he will offer no apologies for a decision made 71years ago during wartime, and Japanese nationalists forget the millions of Chinese, Koreans and other Asian peoples — not to mention Allied soldiers — who suffered and died in the war.

Although many Americans believe that the use of atomic weapons was justified, some continue to raise questions about the decision. Anyone who visits the Nagasaki or Hiroshima memorial museums, which display the remains of the horror that the bombs released in 1945, is sure to be moved. More than 150,000 people (almost all civilians) lost their lives, and many more suffered from injuries and radiation sickness for decades to follow. But most Japanese are not asking Obama to apologize, nor do they see his visit as stirring up bad memories. A recent public opinion poll by one of Japan’s major newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun, revealed a 93 percent favorable rating for the president’s upcoming visit. Rather than an apology, they hope that he will make further commitments toward nuclear non-proliferation.

President Barack Obama has spoken out on nuclear weapons, such as in Prague in a 2009 visit after North Korea’s launch of a rocket.

I think it likely that the president will make such commitments. He has addressed the dangers of nuclear weapons on several occasions, including his 2009 remarks in Prague, when he called nuclear weapons “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.” His diplomatic efforts to keep Iran from developing nuclear capabilities are sure to be remembered as one of the major achievements of his administration. And, of course, a commitment to nuclear arms reductions would be a success at a time when other foreign policy issues (such as Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea) seem to have no solution in sight.

For all of these reasons, Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima makes sense. The risks to the U.S.-Japan relationship seem minor: in fact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted on accompanying the president precisely because he hopes it will bolster his own public opinion ratings.

The U.S.-Japan relationship is strained these days by the presence of so many American troops in Okinawa. Tensions over the American military presence will be especially high during Obama’s visit because last week, an American base employee was arrested and confessed to the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Japanese woman, Rina Shimabukuro. It is not the first time an American serviceman has been implicated in attacks on Okinawan civilians, and the incident has sparked outrage across Japan.

The relationship between the two countries will be further tested if a future president pushes the proliferation of arms such as Donald Trump’s proposal to have Japan arm itself with nuclear weapons.

Yes, some conservative pundits may accuse the president of apologizing, regardless of what he says. But if he pays respect to those who died, it will not be about rewriting history, forgetting Pearl Harbor or ignoring Japan’s colonial aggression toward its neighbors. Hiroshima is the perfect location to announce a major plan for reducing armaments, and if Obama does so, it can only help make us all safer. I hope the American public will see the visit for what it should be: about the future more than about the past.

Ethan Segal is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University. He earned his Ph.D. in East Asian history at Stanford University and was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Tokyo. Currently he serves as president of the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs.