By Todd Crowell
TOKYO (AA) - United States President Barack Obama has made his historic trip to Hiroshima, the first by a U.S. head of state to the Japanese city since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II.
Japanese television showed the mayors of both cities welcoming Obama on Friday as his limousine pulled into the memorial grounds, and then the U.S. president went directly into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum, which contains grisly displays of the impact of the bomb.
It is estimated that around 200,000 people -- mostly civilians -- died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a direct result of U.S. bombings or from radiation sickness and other causes after the attack.
Accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, first the U.S. president and then the prime minister placed floral wreaths at the arch-like cenotaph. Then Obama moved to a small podium for “remarks”.
Although aides had said he would not give a speech, Obama spoke for more than 20 minutes before a small audience which included three survivors of the bombing.
His theme was the horror of war, and at one point he said the “souls speak out to us.”
Despite the bombing, the United States and Japan have since forged not just an alliance but a genuine friendship, he noted.
Obama then moved to the audience, shook hands and spoke to two of the survivors (known in Japan as the hibakusha). At one point he gave one of them a bear hug, which was accompanied by a thunder of camera clicks.
Then he and Abe took one last look at the Atom Dome (the former prefectural industrial promotion building) -- the only building to have partially survived the bombing and the present-day symbol of Hiroshima. The whole affair lasted around one hour
Obama had earlier flown to Hiroshima from Ise Shima, site of the two-day G7 meeting, and landed at the Iwakuni, a U.S. Marine Corps base. There Obama posed for half an hour with hundreds of U.S. and Japanese sailors and marines.
“As president I assure you that the U.S. is leading again in Asia because the region is vital,” he told those gathered in a large hanger before flying to Hiroshima in a Marine Corps helicopter.
Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, which was destroyed Aug. 6, 1945 in the world’s first atomic bombing. For 71 years it has been seen as too sensitive a topic to permit any U.S. president to attend officially.
A significant portion of Americans, especially among the dwindling World War II generation, strongly believe that the bombing and that of Nagasaki three days later were sad but necessary acts to bring the war to a quick end.
Yet opposition even among conservatives in the U.S. seems to have been surprisingly muted with most politically active people totally absorbed in the raucous U.S. presidential campaign.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima in early April, when he had also laid a wreath on the cenotaph and toured the attached museum, was seen as a kind of trial balloon.
As his visit attracted little comment at home, it was considered politically safe for Obama to go.
Early on Obama let it be known that he would not issue an apology for the bombings, and few in Japan, both among the top leaders and the man on the street, asked for one.
“I will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Obama said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper.
Among those who did demand an apology were a group of Korean protesters. Figures vary, but as many as 20,000 Koreans are reported to have died in the bombing. They were in Japan at the time as contractual laborers.
Beijing, meanwhile, coolly noted the visit and urged that the Japanese should not be seen as the victims of the Pacific War.
Koreans and Chinese see themselves as victims of Japan’s aggression.
Prime Minister Abe accompanied the U.S. president in Friday's visit after the two finished consultations at the G7 meeting, which Abe hosted at a resort in Ise Shima.
But the visit was not without controversy. During a press conference, Abe strongly berated Obama for a recent incident that occurred in Okinawa, where a U.S. contractor reportedly admitted to raping and murdering a Japanese woman.