A lame duck President Obama, released next year from any lingering political constraints, will make a likely final official visit to Asia to attend the 42nd G-7 summit of leaders of the world’s leading economies. The summit is scheduled to be held in May 2016 in central Japan, not far from Hiroshima. Secretary of State John Kerry will very likely be the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to visit the city that was devastated by an atomic bomb attack in the closing days of the Second World War.
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported on June 18th that “Hiroshima is expected to host a foreign ministerial meeting of industrialized nations next year, reflecting Japan’s efforts to invite top foreign government officials to cities devastated by the 1945 atomic bombings.” Asahi further quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida as calling on “world leaders to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to learn about the disastrous consequences of nuclear bombings.” Japanese diplomatic sources have indicated that foreign ministers attending the G-7 preparatory meeting, including the U.S. secretary of state, would be expected to take part in a ceremony at the Hiroshima peace park, near the site of ground zero.
Kerry indicated his own likely willingness to take part in such a ceremony in comments he made recently during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with the Japanese Foreign Minister. The AP reported on August 5th that Kerry linked the Hiroshima bombing anniversary to the Iran nuclear deal when he said the Hiroshima anniversary is a “very, very powerful reminder” of the impact of war. Kerry added that it also demonstrates the importance of the Iran deal, adding that he had watched the ceremony in Hiroshima’s peace park on television marking the moment of the atomic blast in 1945.
The actual G-7 summit itself will be held in the resort city of Shima in the central part of the main island of Honshu. The Asahi indicated that, “Hiroshima was a forerunner among eight candidate municipalities that expressed readiness to host the summit. If the city had been chosen, it would have resulted in the first visit to an atomic bombed city by an incumbent U.S. president. However, the city was dropped from the list at the last minute because ‘it would have needed to clear political hurdles in Washington,’ according to a senior Foreign Ministry official.”
American commentators have also recently publicly suggested that President Obama should visit Hiroshima in the waning months of his presidency as “an act of peace.” And Shima, the site of the G-7 summit, is near enough to arrange for a side trip to Hiroshima if President Obama so decides.
Hiroshima would be a perfect venue for President Obama, in the closing weeks of his presidency, to underscore two major themes of his administration: First, a platform to renew the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation themes raised at the beginning of his presidency in his Prague speech in April 2009; and, second, to repeat the apologies contained in his June 2009 Cairo speech regarding Western past mistreatment of non-Western peoples through such venues as colonialism and the Inquisition.
Neither the American president nor the secretary has indicated any concern over likely unintended consequences of such deeply symbolic actions. Yet Tokyo clearly comprehends the weighty historic implications of such gestures. Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported in January that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considering a stop at Pearl Harbor in April en route to Washington for an official visit in order to “demonstrate his desire for a framework for international peace by paying his solemn respects to the dead," according to a government official. This would have proved a precedent-setting historic gesture, as no Japanese Prime Minister has ever visited the site of the December 1941 surprise attack that brought the United States into the Second World War. Abe of course, in apparent deference to the revisionist views of his ultra-nationalist, domestic political base, overflew Hawaii without any stopover, thereby missing a golden opportunity to demonstrate historic reconciliation with his U.S. ally.