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Obama's visit to Hiroshima reopens old war wounds

Johannes Eisele, AFP | Policemen stand guard next to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial park in Hiroshima on May 26.

US President Barack Obama has said he will not offer an apology during his visit to the site of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima on Friday, but the trip has already drawn reproach from veterans' groups and victims of Japanese wartime atrocities.


When US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrive at Hiroshima on Friday it will be the first time a sitting US president has visited the site of the first atomic bomb attack launched at the end of World War II.

The trip comes amid a series of diplomatic moves in the region, part of Obama’s declared “pivot” to Asia as US interests in other regions – including the Middle East – have begun to wane. But the trip has already sparked controversy among US veterans' groups and Korean victims of the war.

Speaking in an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK this week, Obama made clear that he would not be issuing an apology for the US decision to drop the bombs that effectively ended World War II. But for some, the image of a US president visiting the site seems like something of an atonement, official apology or not.

Most Americans view the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as justified to end the war and save the many lives at risk. Some argue that the only alternative would have been a US ground invasion of Asia that would have caused even more deaths, both Allied and Japanese. Others view them as retribution for Japanese aggression in invading much of Asia and launching the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted the US to enter the war.

Historians and officials remain divided on whether the bombings were militarily necessary. Historian and Truman biographer David McCullough has noted that, by late spring 1945, not a single Japanese unit had surrendered. But a US government report from 1946 later concluded that Japan “would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped”.

Both American and Korean advocacy groups contacted Obama ahead of his Hiroshima trip, asking him not to forget about the victims of Japanese war crimes.

“I don’t have any problem with him going, but there is nothing to apologise for,” said Lester Tenney, a 95-year-old American survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March, in comments to AP earlier this month. Thousands of Filipino and US soldiers died during the infamous march to Japanese prison camps.

Tenney wrote to Obama in April, encouraging him to visit Hiroshima but emphasising the suffering of Allied forces at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

"Whereas I encourage a visit to Hiroshima, I do object to any visit that does not first acknowledge the American and Allied forces that fought and died for freedom in the Pacific. To focus solely on the effects of a nuclear weapon removes all responsibility from Imperial Japan for starting the war and conducting it with gross inhumanity."

Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, asked the president to "forego a trip to Hiroshima until you can first make an equally poignant memorialization of the Americans who perished in Japan”. Thompson’s father was a US sailor who was held by the Japanese in the Philippines.

The Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims sent a letter to Obama the week before his visit, noting that between 40,000 and 70,000 South Koreans were killed or otherwise affected by the atomic bombs because they had been either conscripted or forced into hard labour by the Japanese.

“We hope that your visit to Hiroshima will not be used to further the Abe government’s intention of portraying Japan merely as a victim,” the group wrote.

Gong In-bae, a Red Cross official based in Hapcheon, echoed those sentiments in comments to The New York Times. “I doubt that any of Japan’s neighbours welcome Obama’s visit,” Gong said. “If Japan likes to say that people killed by the atomic bombs were civilians, how about all those civilians it itself had killed in Nanjing (Nanking, China), Korea and elsewhere?”

Nightmare in the Pacific

The war in the Pacific left millions dead across Asia, with Japan responsible for chemical weapons attacks, widespread torture, forced labour and sexual slavery. American deaths in the region are estimated at more than 100,000.

“From the invasion of China in 1937 to the end of World War II, the Japanese military regime murdered near 3,000,000 to over 10,000,000 people, most probably almost 6,000,000 Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese, among others, including Western prisoners of war,” according to the late R.J. Rummel, author and former political science professor at the University of Hawaii.

The Manila massacre of February 1945 killed more than 100,000 civilians during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. But the single most notorious incident was the Nanking Massacre of 1937-1938, when the International Military Tribunal for the Far East says the Japanese army killed more than 250,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war. The massacre is also known as the Rape of Nanking after some 20,000 to 80,000 women were sexually assaulted.

Many Japanese dispute these figures, arguing that the Nanking death tolls are exaggerated and that most were likely killed only when they resisted the Japanese occupation.

Japanese military units conducted medical experiments on Chinese civilians and POWs and used chemical weapons banned by the Geneva Conventions. According to historians Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Kentaro Awaya, the Imperial Japanese Army began “full-scale" use of chemical weapons like nausea gas in 1938 and later used mustard gas against both Kuomintang and Communist forces.

'Rain of ruin from the air'

On July 26, 1945, a formal warning was issued to Japan calling for unconditional surrender or risk facing “prompt and utter destruction”. On August 6, US forces dropped a uranium bomb on the city of Hiroshima. In calling again on Japan to surrender, US president Harry S. Truman warned: "If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth." Three days later the United States dropped a plutonium implosion bomb on the city of Nagasaki.

Japan announced its surrender to the Allies on August 15, less than a week after Nagasaki was bombed. The country signed the official Instrument of Surrender that ended World War II on September 2.

An estimated 70,000 people died in the initial blast at Hiroshima, while total deaths from the resulting fallout and radiation probably surpassed 100,000, according to figures from the US Department of Energy. Up to 40,000 were killed instantly when Nagasaki was bombed, with tens of thousands more dying as a direct result of the bombing in the years following. Many died from the effect of burns or radiation sickness as well as malnutrition after their cities were reduced to rubble.

Most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima was a significant industrial and military centre that housed several military units. Nagasaki was one of the largest seaports in southern Japan and was of strategic importance due to its role in the production of ordnance, military equipment and ship-building.

Japanese governments have expressed remorse for the country’s wartime actions in the past, but the Abe administration is often seen as marking a return to Japan’s more nationalist tendencies.

Historian Sven Saaler of Tokyo's Sophia University told AP earlier this week that, under the circumstances, a US apology might be inappropriate.

"In particular right now, when Japan has a government that is ... backpedaling in terms of apologising for the war, if now the US apologised, that [would be] a weird signal," Saaler said.

While Obama won’t apologise for the use of nuclear weapons, he will stress the importance of eliminating them, White House officials said. Obama has stated that one of his goals was to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.

Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Abe said that an apology wasn’t necessary and that he would like to make Obama's visit an “occasion for the US and Japan to mourn all of the victims [of the atomic bombings] together”.

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