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Hiroshima survivors want Obama to apologize. But the Japanese government probably doesn't.

Survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, (top from left) Keiko Ogura, Park Nam-Joo, Sunao Tsuboi, and (bottom from left) Shigeaki Mori, Misako Katani and Emiko Okada.
Survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, (top from left) Keiko Ogura, Park Nam-Joo, Sunao Tsuboi, and (bottom from left) Shigeaki Mori, Misako Katani and Emiko Okada.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Terumi Tanaka was 13 when the atomic bomb exploded a mile and a half from his Nagasaki home. He was knocked unconscious but survived, protected by several hills between him and the epicenter.

Five members of his family were not as fortunate. He remembers finding the charred bodies of his aunt and cousins outside their home; another aunt was severely burned, and when she died several days later, he and his mother cremated her themselves in a nearby field.

Tanaka, like many hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, has strong and complicated feelings about President Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima this week — the first by a sitting US president. Speaking to a small group of journalists, Tanaka, now 84 years old, said he wants the president to meet with survivors and "acknowledge that the US committed a crime against humanity and against international law."

Shizuka Kamei, who lost his sister in Hiroshima and went on to become a powerful, conservative cabinet member, was more direct, telling a group of journalists: "If President Obama’s not coming with an apology, he should not come at all."

But while many Japanese survivors might want President Obama to apologize for the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Japanese government might actually prefer that Obama not apologize.

Indeed, Japan’s vice foreign minister, Mitoji Yabunaka, reportedly told US Ambassador John Roos that "President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a ‘non starter,’" according to a 2009 State Department cable released in 2011 by WikiLeaks.

So why in the world wouldn’t the Japanese government want the US to apologize for inflicting such a horrendous tragedy on Japan? It turns out there are two reasons:

1) It would put pressure on Japan to apologize in kind

An apology from President Obama could make Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feel compelled to offer his own apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities, including the "Rape of Nanking" in China and massacres of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore— which, according to Yuki Tanaka, a professor at Hiroshima City University I spoke with, were perpetrated in part by soldiers from Hiroshima.

"Obama apologizing would bring up the issue of Japan apologizing, which is something Mr. Abe desperately wants to avoid," Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Japan campus, told me in an interview.

Already, a group of more than 300 Hiroshima peace activists are calling on the prime minister to join Obama in apologizing for the "grave war crimes [both] nations committed."

Abe has long resisted such mea culpas, saying Japan needs to end its "masochistic" feelings of guilt. In December, he apologized for Japan’s use of Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves during the war, but afterward he returned to his "time to move on" refrain, telling reporters, "We should not drag this problem into the next generation."

The same issues are now surfacing in Hiroshima. When the bomb fell there, tens of thousands of Koreans were working on the ground as forced laborers, and an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 were killed. Last week, a group representing Korean survivors called on both Obama and Abe to apologize and wrote to Obama, "We hope your visit to Hiroshima will not be used to further the Abe government’s intention of painting Japan merely as a victim."

Tanaka, the history professor, said Japan could avoid such accusations of whitewashing if it followed Germany’s lead and explored its own culpability. That country takes the responsibility so seriously there’s even a German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to describe coming to terms with one’s past.

"If you go to the Holocaust museum in Berlin, you always see groups of students engaging in discussions," Tanaka said. "You go to Hiroshima and there’s no discussion, only victimization."

2) It could inflame a long-simmering domestic debate over nuclear power — and nuclear weapons

An apology from Obama for using nuclear weapons on Japan "could open up a can of worms" about Japan’s own nuclear program, Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, told me when we spoke recently.

Since the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, Prime Minister Abe has worked hard to contain a vocal anti-nuclear movement in Japan. On the fifth anniversary of the disaster, he reaffirmed his commitment, saying Japan "cannot do without" nuclear power.

Japan now has the largest stockpile of separated plutonium of any country that isn’t a nuclear power, according to the Wall Street Journal. And that’s emboldened some war hawks: "If Japan wanted to develop nuclear weapons, it could do it almost immediately," former Tokyo governor and military hard-liner Shintaro Ishihara told a group of journalists last week. "And why shouldn’t Japan have its own?"

With North Korea testing nuclear weapons just a few hundred miles away, that view might be gaining traction. In April, shortly after Donald Trump mused in the New York Times about the possibility of abandoning the US nuclear commitment to Japan’s security and encouraging Japan to develop its own arsenal instead, Abe issued a statement saying that the Japanese constitution does, in fact, allow for the development and use of nuclear weapons.

"This is a government that is not ruling out owning and using a nuclear weapon, so an apology at Hiroshima is going to make things awkward," said Sophia University’s Nakano.

Nakano said Abe also sees a political opportunity in Obama’s visit, which comes just ahead of Japan’s summer elections, and doesn’t want to spoil that with apologies. There is already an upper house election scheduled, but, as the Japan Times reports, Abe may get enough of a bump from Obama’s visit that he decides to call a lower house poll as well.

If his party gets a majority in both houses, he’s pledged to go forward with changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Tanaka, the survivor who lost five family members, told reporters he thinks that’s the wrong direction for the country. "Our constitution calls for the peaceful resolution of conflict. This is important to the survivors, and I think if we can share this idea with the world, it could become the global norm." It’s a message he said he hopes to deliver to President Obama, whether or not the president offers an apology.

Abigail Leonard is a Tokyo-based reporter and former producer for Al Jazeera, PBS, CNN and ABC. Her work has also appeared in Newsweek and Popular Science. More details at abigail-leonard.com.