IWAKUNI, Japan: President Barack Obama hailed the “great alliance” between the United States and Japan Friday, just hours ahead of his historic visit to Hiroshima.
“We are reaffirming one of the greatest alliances in the world between Japan and the United States,” he told troops at a base in Iwakuni in the west of the country.
The US has around 47,000 personnel stationed in Japan as part of a security alliance that arose from American occupation in the aftermath of World War II.
“We can never forget that we have to honor all of those who have given everything for our freedom,” he told a crowd of uniformed men and women to huge cheers. “I am very proud of you.”
Obama was at Iwakuni on his way to Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first nuclear attack—a pilgrimage that none of his post-war predecessors have made.
“This is an opportunity to honor the memory of all who were lost in WWII,” he said. “It’s a testament to how even the most painful divides can be bridged. How two nations can become not just partners but the best of friends.”
The trip comes more than seven decades after the world was first shown the potential key to its own destruction when an American plane, the Enola Gay, dropped its payload, dubbed “Little Boy” over the western Japanese city.
The bombing claimed the lives of 140,000 people, some of whom died immediately in a ball of searing heat, while many succumbed to injuries or radiation-related illnesses in the weeks, months and years afterwards.
The US dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki three days later.
Coming in Obama’s final year in office, the visit also marks seven years since he used his trademark soaring rhetoric to call for the elimination of atomic arms in a landmark speech in Prague that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize.
And while the world today appears no closer to that lofty vision, Obama is expected to use the symbolism of his presence in Hiroshima to call attention to present dangers.
“I want to once again underscore the very real risks that are out there and the sense of urgency that we all should have,” he told reporters on Thursday at a Group of Seven summit in Japan.
“Our visit to Hiroshima will… reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said earlier in the week, revisiting a phrase uttered in the Czech capital.
He is to be accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose presence would “highlight the extraordinary alliance” forged between Japan and the United States from the ashes of war, Obama said.
Obama is expected to lay flowers at the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in the shadow of a domed building, whose skeleton has been left standing in silent testament to the victims of the first-ever nuclear attack.
He will also speak at the spot in the presence of at least three atomic bomb survivors, Japanese media reported.
Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a Hiroshima survivor, told Agence France-Presse that he had been invited to the event.
He earlier told public broadcaster NHK that if he has the chance to speak with Obama, he would “want to express my gratitude” for his visit.
“I have no intention of asking him for words of apology,” said Tsuboi, a long-time anti-nuclear campaigner.
Some quarters of Japanese society, however, have called for such a gesture, though Obama has ruled it out and insisted he will not revisit the decisions of his predecessor Harry Truman at the close of World War II.
While some in Japan feel the attack was a war crime because it targeted civilians, many Americans say it hastened the end of a brutal and bloody conflict, and ultimately saved lives.
Obama, in comments published by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily on Thursday, emphasized the tragedy of armed conflict.
“Hiroshima reminds us that war, no matter the cause or countries involved, results in tremendous suffering and loss, especially for innocent civilians,” he said in a written response to questions posed by the paper.
He also reiterated what he has called the “special responsibility” of the US to lead the world toward nuclear disarmament.
The visit, while largely welcomed in Japan, has drawn less sympathetic reactions in other Northeast Asian countries where historical disputes with Tokyo over wartime and colonial aggression remain raw.
In a commentary released late Thursday, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency called Obama’s trek to Hiroshima an act of “childish political calculation” aimed at disguising the president’s true nature as a “nuclear war maniac”.
“Obama is seized with the wild ambition to dominate the world by dint of the US nuclear edge,” the agency said.
And in Beijing, the government-published China Daily newspaper ran a headline saying: “Atomic bombings of Japan were of its own making.”