Japan's Atomic Political Minefield

President Barack Obama will have to deftly navigate an atomic minefield if he decides to visit Hiroshima, the city destroyed by the first atomic bomb sixty-five years ago on August 6, 1945, during his next visit to Japan later this year.

The president is bound to step on one or two land mines whether he goes to Hiroshima or not. Even if he does nothing but stand silently, letting himself be photographed looking at Atom Dome, the iconic emblem of the bombing, he might be accused of making a "silent apology".

This month the Obama administration dispatched the US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, to the annual memorial held every August 6 in Hiroshima, where more than 120,000 people died in a holocaust that maimed hundreds of thousands as well. It was the first time that an American envoy had attended the memorial service, a point widely noted and appreciated in Japan.

Ambassador Roos's visit was short. He placed a wreath at the Cenotaph but did not speak. He did not visit the Dome or the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, with its grim pictures of the victims of the bombing, although he visited those sites during a trip he made shortly after arriving in Tokyo.

Analysts say the Roos initiative can be seen as a kind of trial balloon for a possible presidential visit in November, when Obama will be in Japan attending the annual gabfest known as APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) which is being held in Yokohama this year.

Obama has been invited – indeed almost implored – to come to Hiroshima by the Mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatohi Akiba. During his last visit to Japan in January Obama replied cautiously that he "would like to visit Hiroshima," which would seem to leave him an out if he wants one.

Nevertheless, a head of steam is building in Japan that Obama should visit the city and perhaps Nagasaki as well, where 70,000 people were killed outright by an American bomb. A decision not to go would be a major snub. Yet, Obama would open himself up to considerable criticism. It is a political trope among conservatives that he goes around apologizing to everyone.

The domestic reaction to the Roos visit seems to have been fairly muted; the conservative and anti-Obama critics may have other priorities for the moment. But then Roos is merely an ambassador. They might react differently to a presidential visit.

The August 6 anniversary usually passes mostly unnoticed in the US, but it is a big deal in Japan. Not only is there a solemn ceremony in Hiroshima but there are displays of the bombing and its effects all over the country. Newspapers play up the story with articles and interviews with the aging survivors.

This year the observations seemed to be an even bigger deal, with Hiroshima residents and other committed to nuclear disarmament perhaps invigorated by the presence, not only of the US ambassador but also in another first the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

Moreover, expectations have been raised - perhaps unrealistically high - by Obama's own words; they see him as soul mate. His phrase calling for a "world without nuclear arms" made during a speech in Prague early in his presidency and even his winning the Nobel Prize for Peace are repeated endlessly.

The Mayor felt emboldened to direct some pointed questions at his own government this year, calling for Tokyo to renounced the "nuclear umbrella" that the U.S. provides Japan and demanding that the "Three Nos" -not to use, possess or allow into the country any nuclear weapons, be made a law not just a statement of policy. Prime Minister Naoto Kan deftly sidestepped the demands, reaffirming Tokyo's commitment to the nuclear umbrella and to the Three Nos, but without promising to turn them into law.

The Japanese press is poised to pounce with questions along the lines of "do you agree with President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb?" Indeed, they already have during Obama's earlier visit to Tokyo. Such inevitable questions will tax his speech writers' abilities to produce creative obfuscation to the limit.

Yet any deviation from the accepted view in America that the twin bombings were necessary to end the war and save even more lives, both of Japanese and invading GIs will bring forth a firestorm of criticism at home If he defends the decision to drop the bomb he'll injure relations with Japan; if he doesn't, he opens himself to criticism from the right at home.

The Japanese government has never demanded an apology for the atomic bomb attacks and is not doing so now, even though it has made several formal apologies to China and Korea about its own actions during World War II. Even at this writing Kan's cabinet is preparing an apology to South Korea to mark the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of the country in 1910.

Japan has never apologized for its attack on Pearl Harbor nor has a leader visited the USS Arizona memorial site. However, the Emperor Akihito has paid his nation's respects by laying a wreath at the Punch Bowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, and his father, the wartime Emperor Hirohito, did the same at Arlington during a visit to the US in the 1970s.

Though some Japanese (even some Americans) denounce the bombings as a war crime, most Japanese are not unsympathetic to the idea that the bombings brought the war to a quick close. They just wish the Americans were more sensitive to the lives (mostly civilian) lost and didn't constantly prattle on about the GI lives that were saved.

If Obama can keep things on that level – a universal respect for the dead – then a trip to Hiroshima might be a success. But otherwise, he may have cause to wish that the APEC was holding its meeting this year in Bali.