Kerry Will Visit Hiroshima Nuclear Site, Testing Water for Obama

  • Secretary of State the top-ranked U.S. official to visit city
  • Kerry joins U.K., French foreign ministers at G-7 meeting

Seventy-one years after a U.S. atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, John Kerry will on Monday become the first incumbent Secretary of State to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of victims in the western Japanese city.

Kerry, the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit the site, arrived Sunday morning in Hiroshima for a meeting of the Group of 7 foreign ministers. His British and French counterparts are also expected to lay wreaths in the city’s peace memorial park -- the first time that serving foreign ministers of nuclear powers will commemorate one of the final acts of World War II.

Mministers at the Itsukushima Shrine as they break from meetings in Hiroshima on April 10.

Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Kerry may be testing the water for a potential trip to the city by President Barack Obama when he visits Japan for a G-7 leaders summit in late May. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later, is widely seen in the U.S. as preventing a bloodier land battle and hastened the end of the Pacific War. A trip by the president would likely stir controversy at home and trigger debate among the candidates to become his successor.

"Kerry’s visit, following visits by U.S. ambassadors and other officials, suggests that a presidential visit is increasingly inevitable," said Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. "But the fact is that the president going to the memorial and, presumably, offering a statement could have unpredictable consequences at home, given that the politics of the U.S. atomic bombings is still fraught."

Final Decision

The Mainichi newspaper in February reported that Obama is considering a visit to the city, with a final decision expected this month.

Obama spoke of his desire for a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague in 2009, but he hasn’t been to Hiroshima on any of his previous three visits to Japan as president. While Kerry last year helped broker a deal with Iran to prohibit the regime in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, risks remain -- China’s program is not seen as transparent, and earlier this year North Korea ratcheted up tensions with its fourth test of a nuclear device.

Japan sees momentum toward nonproliferation as slowing, and foreign ministry officials are keen to put the issue at the top of the agenda at the Hiroshima gathering and are planning to release a statement.  

About 80,000 people were instantly killed when the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber, dropped the device on Hiroshima. Tens of thousands more died from injuries and exposure to radiation, with many people today still supported by the government as victims of the attack. The strike on Nagasaki killed an estimated 40,000 people and led to an unprecedented radio address six days later by then Emperor Hirohito in which he announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, citing the devastating power of a “new and most cruel bomb.”

Pacifist Sentiment

Anti-nuclear and pacifist sentiment are strong in Japan, where passions ran high last year when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through parliament legislation to expand the role of the country’s military. While covered by the U.S.’s so-called nuclear umbrella, Japan in 1967 adopted three non-nuclear principles that state the country shall not possess, produce nor permit the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory.

"Maybe Obama and the U.S. would understand the devastation that nuclear weapons cause if he came here," said Seiji Tsuji, 74, a representative of the atomic bomb survivors who volunteers at Hiroshima’s peace museum. "It’s not for us to point fingers at the U.S. but to make a contribution to world peace."

In a written interview with the Hiroshima-based Chugoku Shimbun newspaper, Kerry stressed that the U.S. has adopted a "realistic, pragmatic approach" to nuclear non-proliferation. "We won’t be able to achieve global nuclear disarmament any time soon, we won’t be able to achieve this in my lifetime, but the U.s. has a special moral responsibility to lead international efforts on nonproliferation."

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a native of Hiroshima, said last month he would redouble his efforts toward a nuclear-free world. In a speech in the city, he raised concerns over North Korea’s latest test and underscored the importance of co-operation between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

"Currently, there is increasing nuclear proliferation concern, as North Korea conducted a nuclear test and launched ballistic missiles," Kishida said. "Unfortunately the momentum and tide of international efforts toward a world free of nuclear weapons have withered. We are facing a very difficult situation today."