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Ex-UN Deputy Secretary General Yasushi Akashi on Obama’s Hiroshima message

Interview summarized by Norihide Miyoshi, senior writer


Human cruelty


Mr. Obama’s message used many well-thought out expressions, which were the fruit of his long-held philosophy. He referred not only to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or the Japan-U.S. relationship, but also to the long history of wars and human cruelty. He also talked about the difficulty of realizing a world without nuclear weapons, which may not be accomplished during his lifetime. It was a remarkable message that reflected a brilliant convergence of idealism and realism.


Prime Minister Abe must also have been confident that his speech to the joint meeting of both houses of the U.S. Congress (in April 2015), which hailed the genuine relationship of trust between Japan and the United States built in the 70 years after World War II, laid the groundwork for Mr. Obama’s visit. He did a great job managing the preparations. The two hibakusha also acted naturally with no awkwardness. It was good that they were not all seriousness, but also smiled. I would imagine that they had said what they wanted to say.


Mr. Obama has indeed attached great importance to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and worked very hard for nuclear disarmament during his administration. However, the U.S. and Russia still possess a large number of nuclear weapons, far from the goal of zero nuclear arms. North Korea, India, Pakistan, and others also own nuclear weapons.


Mr. Obama will probably leave office with great reluctance because he would not be able to fulfill his ideals. That is why he is leaving the Hiroshima message embodying his philosophy as his legacy.


Mindful of Trump


Mr. Obama might have had Donald Trump, who is expected to win the Republican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate, in mind. Trump’s advocacy of nuclear armament by Japan and the ROK is the most outrageous proposition for Mr. Obama. He must have also been signifying that Japan does not need a nuclear arsenal by clearly demonstrating the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance.


Although there had been talk about whether Mr. Obama should apologize for the atomic bombings, demanding an apology would put Mr. Obama in a predicament back home. There is no arguing that even though Japan was a victim of the war, it was a perpetrator as well. Therefore, it was not a question of offering mutual apologies. It is more important not to allow a brutal war to ever happen again.


A debate on whether Prime Minister Abe should visit Pearl Harbor is now expected. Regardless of the historical interpretation of whether the attack on Pearl Harbor was underhanded, a visit by the incumbent Japanese prime minister to the USS Arizona Memorial to expound on reconciliation between Japan and the United States in his own words will be of symbolic significance.


Mr. Obama’s philosophy is a philosophy of reconciliation. He believes that states may have to fight wars under certain circumstances, but once the war is over, they need to become trusted partners as human beings and should be able to do so. He emphasized friendship and “common humanity” in his message.


The achievement made in Japan-U.S. reconciliation as demonstrated by the Hiroshima visit can become an excellent model for postwar reconciliation. However, an alliance is founded on trust and trust is vulnerable. The relationship may still be undermined from now on by insensitive remarks or self-centered interpretation of history. Like plants that need constant watering and care, the visit certainly does not mean that no further efforts are required.


The Japan-China, Japan-ROK relationships


The past has so far been overblown in the Japan-U.S., Japan-China, and Japan-ROK relationships. It is absurd that the past should also define our future. I believe that it is possible to apply the Japan-U.S. reconciliation model to the Japan-China and Japan-ROK relationships. However, Japan cannot build good relations with these two countries using the same methods in its relations with the U.S.


It is foolish for neighboring countries to dig up history, because this will end up in an argument over who was right and who was wrong, since they both have made mistakes in the past. However, Japan must deal with the lingering distrust. Japan has done many things that caused resentment. No one must say that their history was blameless.


I had worked on mediation in ethnic conflicts as the UN deputy secretary general or the Japanese government’s representative. The path to peace is always tortuous. Peace cannot be achieved by prayer alone. One must think of concrete actions not only for the sake of the Japan-U.S. alliance, but also for world peace. Mr. Obama’s Hiroshima visit presented an opportunity for the Japanese people to think seriously about various issues.

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