What meaning should we take from President Obama’s Hiroshima visit?

A month has passed since President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, but the discussion continues. A Japanese friend of mine wrote to me Monday saying that The Japan Times earlier this week had a full page Readers Forum entitled “What do you think about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima?” Comments in this Forum were positive and largely forward looking: e.g.,

“President Obama is pursuing a change. Now, it is our responsibility to take the next step.”

“The strong words of President Obama are engraved in my heart. His visit to Hiroshima did not only please the Japanese people but also gave the entire world a glimmer of hope for the future. After listening to the historic speech, I thought ‘What can I do?’…”

But comments also recognized that this visit was about the past, even if apologies were not being offered:

“Through this visit I hope the world can see the importance of acknowledging the past.”

Even though most Japanese continue to believe that the atomic bombings were unjustified, nearly 80 percent of surveyed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said they were pleased with the visit, according to a Kyodo News poll taken at the time of the visit. Only 15% felt that an apology from the US was called for.

Whatever political motivations Obama had for this visit (think North Korea’s nuclear threat and the US’s new security “pivot” towards Asia), he was, surely, sending a message about the past. He was demonstrating that it is possible to acknowledge the pain of the past even if politics keep aspects of the injurious past alive. He might even have been saying that matters of apology matter less than acknowledgement of pain and forging a new path together.

When asked before the trip whether he would apologize, Obama said in an interview with NHK,

“No, because I think that it is important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions.

“It is the job of historians to ask questions and examine them, but I know as somebody who has now sat in this position for the last seven and a half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during war time.”

“My purpose is not to simply revisit the past, but to affirm that innocent people die in a war, on all sides, that we should do everything we can to try to promote peace and dialogue around the world, that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The discussions around the matter of apology during these weeks have been complex. Some commentators said the Japanese government preferred that Obama not apologize, because this might have place an unwanted requirement on Japan to apologize for gross human rights violations committed towards prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War. Others felt that the framing of this event, focusing on common concerns about nuclear weapons, demonstrated that it is time to move on from the discourse of World War II apology, which seems stale in the 21st century.

After Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, I sat down at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, with Lily Gardner Feldman, a scholar of political reconciliation. Feldman, Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, makes a distinction between “moral reconciliation” and “pragmatic reconciliation.”

With regard to “moral reconciliation,” Feldman highlights that Germany started very soon after 1945 to look for ways to make amends towards former enemy countries and to the Jews of Israel, and over time has continued to observe joint commemorations of the historical events in question, even when it was no longer necessary for Germany to do so. She emphasizes the role of civil society organizations in building links between the German people and citizens of countries involved in the war against Germany, and the assiduous efforts made to rewrite textbooks. She believes that the two primary aspects of moral reconciliation are a repeated acknowledgement of the painful events that occurred, and the willingness to take responsibility for them.

Feldman describes Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as an example of pragmatic reconciliation. She likewise describes Japanese apologies proffered since World War II as pragmatic, linked, as they have largely been, with attempts to reach political goals, rather than to take a moral position per se.

Prime Minister Abe has, likewise, been criticized by the political left in Japan for taking a less-than adequate stance with regard to moral reconciliation.  His 2015 official apology to South Korea for the sexual abuse of Korean women who were forced to “service” Japanese men during the war, while acknowledged as a step forward, had written in an insistence that the matter would not be revisited. This falls short of Germany’s model.

In spite of all of this discussion, or perhaps because of it, I found Obama’s visit refreshing. I did not see it as only pragmatic. He offered a different way of thinking about the past in a situation that has become stuck in one particular frame. True compassion was present, I thought. His embrace of the survivors was deeply genuine. Obama found a way to acknowledge the unprecedented and terrible experience Japanese people underwent, and to point in the direction of a common future.

But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves whether acknowledgement of the painful past is only likely to produce reconciliation between countries or political entities who are motivated for other reasons to be bound together in a political future…

4 thoughts on “What meaning should we take from President Obama’s Hiroshima visit?

  1. my comments shall remain between me ‘n you. M: Keep u your wonderfully progressive and conscious writing. I love it. s


  2. Margaret, I am so glad to be a reader of your blog. It may be that President Obama’s greatest achievement is his use of heartfelt words to promote human understanding and a little bit of healing in our world.


  3. Thanks for your thoughts and insights. I perceived Obama’s visit as deeply pragmatic without any vision of how to deal with one of America’s biggest crimes. But, it seems to me as well, that Obama is a very long-term thinker and he wanted to take a first step into the right direction and left it to one of his successors to actually apologize for the enormous and unjustified suffering of civilians. My calculation is that ultimately more pressure will be put on the Japanese government to deal much more critically with its own past when the U.S. is going ahead as a good example to deal with its history.


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