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The significance of an Obama visit to Hiroshima

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 1.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/TOKYO   Early in his presidency, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his advocacy of nuclear disarmament. Now, he is poised to bookend his time in office by becoming the first sitting U.S. leader to visit Hiroshima. 

     U.S. sources told The Nikkei that Obama will visit the site of the world's first atomic bombing after the Group of Seven summit in May. 

     Such a trip would be highly sensitive for both the Japanese, some of whom view the Hiroshima bombing as an unjustified atrocity against civilians, and the Americans, who tend to regard it as a necessary step that helped end World War II sooner. Obama is likely to be careful during his visit to ensure that he does not appear "apologetic," which would arouse anger at home. Japanese citizens groups have previously demanded that the U.S. apologize for the bombing.

     Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be present during the visit to the Hiroshima memorial, according to the sources. The memorial commemorates the estimated 80,000 people killed instantly on Aug. 6, 1945, and many thousands more who died later.

     John Kerry became the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to pay his respects in Hiroshima earlier in April, a trip that was widely seen as paving the way for a presidential visit. Kerry laid a wreath but did not bow or lower his head during his time at the memorial.

     The U.S. and Japanese governments are working to arrange Obama's visit on May 27, the final day of the G-7 summit, according to the sources. The summit is to be held in Ise-Shima, which is located roughly halfway between Tokyo and Hiroshima.

     Several high-ranking U.S. officials told The Nikkei that the U.S. government would seek to finalize arrangements following Obama's trip to Europe and the Middle East. The Japanese government should expect an official notification in early May, one official said.

LEAVING A LEGACY   Obama's speech at the memorial will include an important message to the Japanese and to all those who want to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, one of the officials explained. The address will take into account the sensitive relations between Japan and its neighbors, including China and South Korea, the official added. Obama may include criticism of North Korea's continued development of nuclear arms.

     In a speech in Prague in April 2009, Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons, saying that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to act." He won the Nobel Prize later that year, although the results of his anti-nuclear efforts have been limited.

     More than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons are in the hands of the U.S. and Russia. And while Obama signed the New START strategic arms reduction treaty with then-President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia in 2010, the momentum for disarmament sputtered after Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency. Bilateral relations soured when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. 

     Obama, torn between his Nobel-winning ideals and the grim reality, has grown increasingly frustrated. Now he sees a chance to return to his original vision and cement his anti-nuclear legacy before he leaves office next January.

     As White House spokesman Josh Earnest put it on April 12, without confirming the Hiroshima trip: "Symbolically, there's no more powerful illustration" of the commitment to a nuclear-free world than "the city that contained the victims of the first use of that weapon."

     Still, as long as the U.S. and Russia are at odds, it is hard to imagine the fanfare leading to concrete results. And there could be a price to pay for visiting Hiroshima -- at home and internationally.

     When Obama first visited Japan in 2009, he said he hoped to visit Hiroshima while still in office. He has not made good on that wish during his last three visits, apparently fearing that it would provoke criticism at home, where opponents have accused him of being insufficiently robust in defending U.S. interests.

     The lack of an outcry over Kerry's stop in Hiroshima seems to have convinced Obama to take the risk. Major U.S. newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have expressed support for a presidential visit to the city.

     Even so, the response to a commander-in-chief visiting Hiroshima could prove far harsher. The opposition Republicans could slam the move as "apology diplomacy" even if Obama makes every effort to avoid appearing contrite. There is talk that the move might hurt Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state many see as Obama's natural successor.

     Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is undermining Obama's advocacy of a nuclear-free world and looks set to attack the trip. In late March, he suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear arms.

REGIONAL STABILITY   The election is not until November. But even if the visit has little impact on the presidential race, it could have diplomatic consequences. China and South Korea -- which see Japan as an aggressor, not a victim -- are expected to criticize the visit. Many in Washington fear the backlash could harm the U.S. strategy in Asia.

     To ease such concerns, sources said Obama will call not only for nuclear disarmament but also Asian stability in his Hiroshima speech.

     Despite the potential complications, Obama's visit could usher in a new era for the U.S.-Japan alliance, which sprang from the ashes of WWII. To this day, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often viewed as a thorn deeply embedded in the relationship. 

     There has also been debate over whether Obama should mention that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went to the U.S. last year, some floated the idea of him visiting the memorial in Hawaii. The president's Hiroshima visit could give new life to such a plan.

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