President Barack Obama laid a wreath at a monument to the memory of the more than 140,000 people killed by the world's first atomic bomb attack. Speaking at Hiroshima, Obama thus became the first sitting president to visit the site. Obama did not offer an apology to the Japanese people, but he did reflect on the horrors of war and express a hope for what he called a “moral awakening.” Referring to the day on August 6, 1945, when a lone American bomber dropped the device that flashed as bright as the sun and evaporated thousands, Obama said "Death fell from the sky and the world was changed." Closing his eyes and briefly bowing his head in front of the stark arched monument in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, Obama said that the bombing "demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself."
 
Next to Obama was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he stood near an iconic bombed-out domed exhibition building that has been kept as a reminded of the atomic devastation. Obama urged the world to contemplate the destruction: "We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell ... we listen to a silent cry." "We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them," Obama said of nuclear weapons. He once received a Nobel Peace Prize for his rhetoric about nuclear weapons before taking office in 2008.
 
 
A war correspondent surveys the devastation of Hiroshima in 1945
 
The relations between the United States and Japan remain close, despite the fact that the former was the first and only nation to use an atomic weapon and the latter was the first to be subjected to it. An indication of the closeness of the two is that Caroline Kennedy – the daughter of President John F. Kennedy.
 
"We have a shared responsibility to look directly in the eye of history. We must ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again," said Obama. Leaving a wreath at the memorial, the president said solemnly, "We come to ponder the terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past…We come to mourn the dead."
 
Previous presidents had weighed whether to visit the memorials to the dead of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but did not come. Former president Jimmy Carter visited in 1984.
There are Japanese who expected an apology from Obama during this visit who will have to wait. Also, there are Koreans who also wanted to hear him recall the approximately 40,000 of their compatriots who were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors of the blast also wanted to share their stories of physical and psychological pain with Obama.
 
There were strains in the bilateral relationship revealed on this visit. Last week, former U.S. Marine Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old civilian worker at the U.S. Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, was arrested on suspicion of abandoning the body of Rina Shimabukuro -- a 20-year-old Japanese woman. Shinzato allegedly admitted to killing her last month. Then, just as Obama was paying his respects at the Hiroshima memorial, an American sailor pleaded guilty to raping a drunken Japanese woman in Okinawa.
 
Okinawa, which was the scene of fierce battles in the Second World War, is home to about half of all U.S. military personnel deployed in Japan. The presence of American bases and problems associated with them, including crimes committed by US personnel, have been a source of constant resentment among Okinawans. Okinawa’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, is often at odds with the Japanese government after being elected on a platform that pledges to resist what his party has called the American “occupation.” Japan remains strongly committed to the U.S. military presence, given the increased military adventurism on the part of China.
 
Korean-American veterans protest PM Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington DC
 
Prime Minister Abe broke with diplomatic protocol, however, by strongly protesting the alleged rape and murder in Okinawa. Abe said “I have lodged a firm protest with U.S. President Obama as the Japanese prime minister,” and that he felt "profound resentment for this self-centered and despicable crime this case has shocked not just Okinawa but all of Japan."
 
For this, Obama did apologize and expressed "his sincerest condolences and deepest regrets" for the murder. "The U.S. will continue to cooperate fully" and will continue to ensure "justice is done under the Japanese legal system," Obama said. "We want to see a crime like this prosecuted here in the same way that we would feel horrified and want to provide a sense of justice to a victim's family back in the U.S.," Obama said. "I think the Japanese people should know we are deeply moved and working with he Japanese government to prosecute not only this crime but prevent these kinds of crimes from happening again."
 
In Japan, those convicted of murder may face capital punishment -- the only crime to which it is applied. Hanging is the method used. However, it is unlikely that capital punishment will be applied in Shinzato's case. If convicted, he may face life imprisonment. 
 
Despite the national leaders’ solemn faces, they did not appear ready to revise the current U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which gives the U.S. jurisdiction over U.S. military and civilian contractors if they violate Japanese laws while engaged in official duties. ”I think it’s important to point out that the SOFA — the Status of Forces Agreement — does not in any way prevent the full prosecution and the need for justice under the Japanese legal system,” Obama said at news conference yesterday. “And we will be fully cooperating with the Japanese legal system in prosecuting this individual and making sure that justice is served.”
 
Okinawa’s legislature demanded that the Marines should leave the island. The prefectural assembly also adopted a resolution addressed to the U.S. government and military and a separate statement to the Japanese government, both seeking a revision of the SOFA. Governor Onaga expressed disappointment that Abe and Obama did not revise the SOFA. “It is extremely regrettable that there was no mention of amending the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement,” Onaga told reporters. Onaga added, that Okinawans “have been forced to bear the heavy burden of hosting the bases…Unless the accord is revised, the concerns the people of Okinawa have over the bases will not be allayed.”


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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