Barack Obama has become the first sitting US president to confront the consequences of using an atomic bomb as he visited Hiroshima to remember its dead and demand a world free from nuclear weapons.
With the skeleton of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome as a backdrop, Mr Obama laid a wreath in memory of at least 80,000 people who died when the US became the first and only country to launch a nuclear attack, on August 6 1945.
Mr Obama and Mr Abe laid wreaths in turn. Mr Abe bowed; Mr Obama did not. Then the two men shook hands.
“Seventy-one years ago, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” said Mr Obama, addressing an audience including hibakusha, as survivors of the bombing are known. “A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
“Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them,” Mr Obama added.
The US president made clear he was not apologising. Just ahead of his Hiroshima visit, addressing troops at a US Marine Corps base near Hiroshima — choreography intended to show strength as well as sorrow — he said the visit was an “opportunity to honour the memory of all who were lost in World War Two”.
Mr Obama’s visit is a powerful symbol of reconciliation between the US and Japan, former enemies who have became close allies. Opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Japanese are pleased Mr Obama is visiting now, even without an apology, after US presidents avoided the site for 71 years.
The visit also symbolises some of the frustrated ambitions of Mr Obama’s presidency. In the seven years since his landmark speech in Prague, where he said the US had a “moral responsibility” to rid the world of atomic weapons, Russia, China and others have modernised their atomic arms.
Mr Obama himself has presided over a $ 1tn upgrade to the US nuclear arsenal. Visiting Hiroshima is a chance to revive that moral mission from 2009 as his presidency draws to a close.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the birth of the nuclear age, where a single bomb could bring instant death to millions of civilians. They were among the most awful moments of a terrible war.
In the US, Mr Obama’s visit has reignited a long-running debate about whether the atomic bombings were justified, saving lives by helping to end the war, or were an unnecessary attack on a largely civilian target, launched without warning.
In Japan the atomic conflagration and horrifying loss of civilian life has shaped how the second world war is remembered. To some in South Korea and China, Mr Obama’s visit promotes a version of history in which Japan thinks of itself as a victim and not as an aggressor.
The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15am local time, detonating 600 metres above the ground with a “white magnesium flash”. The spreading blast and fireball destroyed every building within 2km. Tens of thousands of people died instantly.
Akiko Takakura, who survived just 300m from the hypocentre, spoke of a whirlpool of fire. “The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers,” she told an archive project years later.
“A light grey liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burnt and deformed like that. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Horribly burnt, survivors fled the ruins of the city as a black rain of radioactive dust and ash began to fall. Many more died in the following days from burns and radiation; the bombing of Nagasaki took place three days later, on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 15.
Many of the living survivors were children at the time of the bombing. Mr Obama’s visit seven decades later is a memorial to the attack that shaped their lives and raises the hope that such weapons may never be used again.
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