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After Obama’s Hiroshima trip, Japan ponders role in making nuclear arms-free world

29 May 2016 No Comment

While the leaders of Japan and the United States standing side by side near ground zero in Hiroshima highlighted their robust security alliance, atomic-bomb survivors, activists and experts believe Japan must ponder its own role in global efforts to abolish nuclear weapons.

“Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, referring to wars including World War II when the atomic bombings took place in the closing days.

As Obama on Friday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit ground zero in the first Japanese city to suffer the U.S. atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, survivors and local residents hope Obama’s visit and speech will inspire nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers to rev up momentum in pursuing a world without such weapons.

With the average age of atomic-bomb survivors now over 80, moving eyewitness accounts will grow scarcer in the coming years, raising worries that this will weaken the crusade against eliminating nuclear arms.

Still, Sunao Tsuboi, a 91-year-old Hiroshima atomic-bomb survivor, remains undaunted, saying this challenge “may not be achieved in my lifetime, but we would like to overcome it (one day).”

“I hope (people) will not leave Mr. Obama to do the task alone and that by listening to his speech, every person will be spurred to think about what he or she can do,” said Terumi Tanaka, an 84-year-old survivor of the attack on Nagasaki, the second Japanese city devastated by an atomic bomb three days after Hiroshima.

Tanaka, who was invited with Tsuboi to a ceremony at the park to meet Obama, expressed hope the United States will ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and help in efforts to negotiate a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

A network of Japan-based civic groups opposed to nuclear arms including the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, to which Tsuboi and Tanaka belong, has also urged Japan to play an “active and constructive role” for such negotiations being discussed at a U.N. working group on disarmament issues.

While Obama’s Hiroshima visit puts the spotlight back on nuclear disarmament efforts, challenges abound after the collapse of the U.N. review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last year, deepening chasm between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” under the NPT framework, and growing risks that nuclear weapons could fall into terrorist groups, pundits say.

Nagasaki University’s Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition says 15,700 nuclear weapons exist in the world as of June 2015, with most of them maintained by the United States and Russia.

“Nothing has moved forward in terms of nuclear disarmament after the 2009 Prague speech (of Obama calling for nuclear weapon-free world) and 2010 new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty (between the United States and Russia),” Hirofumi Tosaki, an expert on disarmament issues, said.

Tosaki, senior research fellow of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said disarmament efforts “in fact have not stalled but regressed as nuclear weapon states re-evaluate the role of nuclear weapons, modernizing and strengthening such weapons” amid the security landscape that includes North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

Against this backdrop and as nuclear powers are criticized for turning their back on dealing with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, he said Obama’s visit is “symbolic” in showing U.S. commitment to disarmament efforts.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own speech in Hiroshima in which he said his country has a mission of “realizing a world free of nuclear weapons,” also demonstrates Japan’s renewed resolve toward achieving this goal.

But experts say Japan needs to do a lot of work to make strides in disarmament as it is mired in the paradox of maintaining a security policy under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella while pushing for disarmament as the world’s only atomic-bombed country.

Takashi Kawakami, a Takushoku University professor and expert on Japan-U.S. ties, said nuclear deterrence serves its purpose, and for Japan to do away with this requires a full-fledged debate on what this would entail for Japan’s security policy, in light of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

“What is important is how Japan and the United States can pursue a world without nuclear weapons, and how stability can be maintained in such a world,” Kawakami said, noting that Japan may also have to deal with a situation in which China’s nuclear weapons match that of the United States.

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