'Mourn the dead,' but no apology: Obama's historic visit to Hiroshima

Barack Obama has become the first sitting US president to visit the memorial of the American atomic bombings of Japan in Hiroshima – but offered no apology for the attacks. The trip comes amid protests over alleged crimes committed by US troops stationed in Japan.

"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," Obama said in a speech at the memorial.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Obama’s visit opened a new chapter of reconciliation for the US and Japan, and praised the president for his courage in coming to Hiroshima.

The US remains the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons in warfare. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 killed thousands shortly after impact, with the death toll reaching 140,000 by the end of the year. The majority of Japanese disagree with the American justification that it was necessary to drop the bombs in order to bring an end to the war.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) carries a wreath as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on, in front of a cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan May 27, 2016 © Toru Hanai

"We come to ponder the terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past," Obama said after laying a wreath at the memorial. "We come to mourn the dead." Despite the solemn words, he stopped short of directly apologizing for the bombings.

"I want Obama to say 'I'm sorry.' If he does, maybe my suffering will ease," Eiji Hattori, 73, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, told Reuters before the ceremony.

His parents and grandparents, rice traders, all died in the years following the attack. Hattori has three types of cancer. On hearing the speech, he said: "I think [the speech] was an apology."

"If Obama were to apologize as the representative of the United States, then Japan's military needs to apologize too,” said Mieko Koike, a 67-year-old Hiroshima resident.

For many, the mere arrival of the US leader in itself constitutes an important step.

“An apology doesn’t matter. I just want [President Obama] to come and visit Hiroshima and see real things and listen to the voice of survivors,” Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a bombing survivor and anti-nuclear activist, told AFP. He suffered burns from the blast and developed cancer.

Obama’s visit to Japan is marred not only by historical legacy but also by fresh strains in bilateral relations.

Last week, a former Marine working at a US military base in Okinawa was arrested by the Japanese police for allegedly killing a Japanese girl in April. On Friday, just as Obama was visiting the Hiroshima memorial, a US sailor pleaded guilty to raping an intoxicated Japanese woman in Okinawa’s capital Naha in March.

Okinawa, which was the scene of fierce battles in wartime, hosts roughly half of all American troops deployed in Japan. The presence of US bases and problems associated with them, including crimes committed by US personnel, have been a source of constant resentment among Okinawans.

The island is currently headed by Governor Takeshi Onaga, who was elected on a pledge to fight the American military presence. His stance puts him at odds with the central government in Tokyo, which stands strongly for the continued presence of American troops in the country.