May 26, 2016 8:48 pm JST

Obama's Hiroshima visit, 7 years in making

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei staff writer

After twists and turns, U.S. President Barack Obama is about to make a historic visit to Hiroshima.

ISE-SHIMA, Japan -- U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan, on Friday was preceded by seven years of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.

Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

Diplomats from the two nations discussed a visit by Obama as early as August 2009, when Mitoji Yabunaka, the Japanese vice minister for foreign affairs, met with the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time, John Roos. Yabunaka told Roos that Japan considered it "premature" for Obama to go to Hiroshima during his first state visit to Japan in November of that year. This was revealed by a secret U.S. State Department cable later posted on the WikiLeaks website.

Obama, who in April 2009 had delivered a speech calling for a world without nuclear weapons in Prague, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October the same year. Probably due in part to Yabunaka's comment, he refrained from going to Hiroshima during his November visit to Japan, only saying that he would be "honored" to someday be able to visit the city along with Nagasaki, where a second atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945.

Japan announced its World War II surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

"History is harsh"

The "premature" remark seemed to have a lasting effect. A visit to Hiroshima was not even on the agenda during U.S.-Japan meetings to prepare for Obama's second and third visits to Japan, in November 2010 and April 2014. However, just before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the U.S. in April 2015, the U.S. proposed that Abe visit Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, which Japan attacked in December 1941, drawing the U.S. into World War II.

The idea was primarily conceived by the U.S. State Department, with the rationale that if the Japanese prime minister first visited Pearl Harbor, it would allay opposition from conservatives and others in the U.S. against Obama visiting Hiroshima. However, Japan rejected the proposal, as it did not want the U.S. president's visit to take place in exchange for the Japanese prime minister visiting Pearl Harbor.

The U.S. proposal also reflected a power shift within the country's administration. The State Department had been caught off-guard in December 2013 when Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead -- a highly controversial move that Obama opposed. This led to the White House taking over the initiative in making policy toward Japan. For the State Department, the Pearl Harbor proposal was partly aimed at regaining lost ground.

Although Abe did not go to Pearl Harbor, he paved the way for Obama's visit to Hiroshima in an address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, the first-ever speech there by a Japanese prime minister.

"History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone," Abe said in his address, suggesting that waging war against the U.S. was wrong. He went on to say, "Enemies that had fought each other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit." Abe received standing ovations several times from those in attendance, regardless of political party.

Waiting for Kerry

Before the decision to hold this year's Group of Seven summit in Ise-Shima, the U.S. State Department unofficially proposed a different location -- Hiroshima. It apparently thought this would make it easier for Obama to visit the atomic bomb memorial.

From Japan's perspective, this was a nonstarter. The government did not even add the proposal to its agenda for discussion.

Tokyo's position was that it should not set the stage for an Obama visit to the city -- the president should make the trip of his own volition. So instead, Japan suggested holding the G-7 leaders meeting in Ise-Shima and the foreign ministers meeting in Hiroshima, which happens to be the hometown of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

Japan sounded out the U.S., which quickly agreed.

Kishida later met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 6, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima attack. Kerry told Kishida he would like to visit the memorial while attending the foreign ministers meeting in April.

For the Obama administration, this made sense on a couple of levels. One, the first visit by a ministerial-level U.S. official would lay the groundwork for Obama to stop in Hiroshima a month and a half later, during his visit to Japan for the G-7 summit. Plus, it would provide an excuse should Obama decide against going to Hiroshima himself. A high-ranking White House official at the time said an Obama visit was not a foregone conclusion; the administration wanted to wait until after Kerry's appearance at the memorial.

Momentum builds

Unlike the State Department, the White House needed to weigh the political risks ahead of the November 2016 presidential election. In the U.S., the prevailing view is that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified because they ended the war, and thus saved lives. In one survey of Americans, 56% of respondents supported the decision to drop the bombs.

Obama, nearing the twilight of his presidency, was still concerned that a visit to Hiroshima might harm the election chances of Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state and the Democratic Party presidential front-runner. If Americans saw the move as an example of "apology diplomacy," it could antagonize U.S. war veterans and affect Clinton's campaign.

Another factor was external: opposition from China and South Korea, which condemn Japan as the aggressor in World War II. But in December, an agreement between Tokyo and Seoul over Japan's use of wartime "comfort women" seemed to improve the atmosphere. A senior U.S. government official felt it was time to go ahead with the Hiroshima visit.

The administration was still hesitant. Asked in February whether the visit would happen, the official said the president was very interested in going but had not yet decided. He said there were advocates and opponents of the move within the White House, and that the administration would continue to wait to gauge the reaction to Kerry's visit. Nevertheless, momentum toward a visit was building, albeit quietly.

The Trump factor

Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and a major political supporter of Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign, returned to Washington in March, meeting the president at the White House to make sure he would visit Hiroshima. There was one condition: Obama would not apologize for the atomic bombings.

When Kennedy traveled to Japan for the first time in 1978, she visited the city's Peace Memorial Park. As ambassador she has attended memorial ceremonies for atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And she encouraged Obama to visit a city hit by an atomic bomb during his time in office. She played a key role in bringing about the visit.

At the Nuclear Security Summit, on March 31 and April 1 in Washington, Obama saw an opportunity to put a capstone on his campaign to move toward a world without nuclear weapons. But it was presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump who stole the spotlight, telling the The New York Times right before the summit that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to build their own nuclear weapons.

Obama was dismissive. Trump "doesn't know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy," the president said at a news conference after the summit on April 1. Whatever Obama would decide, Trump was unlikely to be a factor.

Pearl Harbor

Regarding Kerry's visit to Hiroshima on April 10-11 -- about the time Obama appeared to begin seriously considering a Hiroshima visit -- Japan repeatedly hinted that it would not call on Kerry to apologize for the bombings. Critics of the Obama administration's nuclear diplomacy could have seized on any suggestion of an apology to scuttle a presidential visit. Kerry also emphasized the forward-looking nature of Japan-U.S. relations.

Kerry's visit to Hiroshima caused no major backlash in the U.S., and influential newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times wrote editorials supporting a visit by Obama. Kerry recommended the trip to the president in person. These developments cleared the way for this week's historic event.

In late April, Obama made up his mind. Kerry informed Ambassador Kennedy of the decision, who passed word along to the Japanese government. The U.S. formally notified Japan of Obama's intention to visit Hiroshima following the conclusion of the North Korean ruling party's first congress in 36 years. During that meeting, Pyongyang hinted at further nuclear tests.

Objections to Obama's visit have been muted from Republican Party and other quarters in the U.S., partly because the administration took pains to state the event does not amount to "apology diplomacy." Obama will visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, sign the visitors book and lay flowers at the cenotaph. He is also expected mention the other bombed city, Nagasaki, in his statement.

Meanwhile, there is a strong possibility Prime Minister Abe will pay respects at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had initially made such a visit a precondition for Obama's trip to Hiroshima, but the situation has changed. Since Obama has already decided to travel to the Japanese city, what is important is that Abe's own itinerary be seen as voluntary.

Through the leaders' reciprocal visits to places that symbolize a war they once waged on each other, Japan and the U.S. can highlight their achievement in forging a strong alliance. The timing of an Abe visit to Pearl Harbor is being nailed down. Senior officials from the two countries say the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, to be held in Peru in November, may present Abe a good opportunity to stop over in Hawaii. Obama's decision to go to Hiroshima has laid the groundwork.

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