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Barack Obama uses Hiroshima visit to urge world without nuclear weapons

Published 27/05/2016

US President Barack Obama renewed calls for a world free from nuclear weapons during his visit to Hiroshima.

As the first US president to visit the city where his country dropped the first atomic bomb, Mr Obama acknowledged - but did not apologise for - an act many Americans see as a justified end to a war that Japan started with the Pearl Harbour attack.

Some 140,000 people died after a US warplane targeted wartime Hiroshima on August 6 1945, and 70,000 more perished in Nagasaki, where a second bomb was dropped three days later. Japan soon surrendered.

Mr Obama said of the dead: "Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and who we might become."

With his speech and a warm embrace for an elderly survivor, Mr Obama renewed the call for a nuclear-free future that he had first laid out in a 2009 speech in Prague.

This time, Mr Obama spoke as a far more experienced president than the one who had employed his upbeat "Yes, we can" campaign slogan the first time around.

The president, who has made uneven progress on his nuclear agenda over the past seven years, spoke of "the courage to escape the logic of fear" as he held out hope for diligent, incremental steps to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

"We may not realise this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe," he said.

Mr Obama spent less than two hours in Hiroshima but seemed to accomplish what he came for. It was a choreographed performance meant to close old wounds without inflaming new passions on a subject still fraught after all these years.

In a solemn ceremony on a sun-drenched afternoon, Mr Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed wreaths before the cenotaph, a simple arched stone monument at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. Only the clicking of camera shutters intruded on the moment as Mr Obama closed his eyes and briefly bowed his head.

Then, after each leader gave brief remark, Mr Obama approached two ageing survivors of the bombing who were seated in the front row, standing in for the thousands still seared by memories of that day.

Ninety-one-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, the head of a survivors group, energetically engaged the president in conversation, telling Mr Obama he would be remembered as someone who listened to the voice of a few survivors. He urged him to come back and meet more.

"He was holding my hands until the end," Mr Tsuboi said. "I was almost about to ask him to stop holding my hands, but he wouldn't."

Mr Obama stepped over to meet historian Shigeaki Mori. Just eight when the bomb hit, Mr Mori had to hold back tears at the emotion of the moment.

Mr Obama patted him on the back and wrapped him in a warm embrace. From there, Mr Obama and Mr Abe walked along a tree-lined path toward a river that flows by the iconic A-bomb dome, the skeletal remains of an exhibition hall that stands as silent testimony to the power of the bomb blast 71 years ago and as a symbol for international peace.

Mr Abe welcomed the president's message and offered his own determination "to realise a world free of nuclear weapons, no matter how long or how difficult the road will be".

Mr Obama received a Nobel Peace Prize early in his presidency for his anti-nuclear agenda but has seen uneven progress. The president can point to last year's Iran nuclear deal and a weapons treaty with Russia. But North Korea's nuclear programme still looms as a threat, and hopes for a pact for further weapons reductions with Russia have stalled. Critics also fault the Obama administration for planning a big and costly programme to upgrade US nuclear stockpiles.

Mr Abe made a point to dismiss any suggestion that he would pay a reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese leader did not rule out coming to Hawaii, but clearly wanted to avoid any notion of moral equivalence. In Japan, Pearl Harbour is not seen as a parallel for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as an attack on a military installation that did not target civilians.

Bomb survivor Kinuyo Ikegami, 82, paid her own respects at the cenotaph early on Friday, before the politicians arrived.

"I could hear schoolchildren screaming: 'Help me! Help me!'" she said, tears running down her face. "It was too pitiful, too horrible. Even now it fills me with emotion."

Mr Obama went out of his way, in speaking of the dead, to mention that thousands of Koreans and a dozen American prisoners were among those who died. It was a nod to advocates for both groups who had publicly warned the president not to forget about them in Hiroshima.

In a brief visit to the museum at the peace park, Mr Obama visited a display about a young girl who survived the bombing but died several years later of leukaemia. She folded paper cranes in the hospital until she died and is the inspiration for the children's novel Sadako And The Thousand Cranes.

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