Don’t worry too much about this story. I’m sure Barack Obama would have waited for Japan’s apology for Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the treatment of American POWs …
The cable indicates the Japanese government was then effectively discouraging Obama from visiting Hiroshima despite growing expectations over it following his call for a world free from nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague in April 2009.
The cable, dated Sept. 3, 2009, and sent to U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton, reported Japan’s then Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka telling Ambassador John Roos on Aug. 28 that antinuclear groups would speculate over whether the president would visit Hiroshima in light of his Prague speech on nuclear nonproliferation.
“He underscored, however, that both governments must temper the public’s expectations on such issues, as the idea of President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a ‘non-starter’,” said the cable.
The most fascinating part of this was the discouragement given by the Japanese Vice Foreign Minister. Presumably, a Japanese government that got an American President to bow to their national sense of victimhood from the consequences of launching a brutal war of conquest in the 1930s — bowing in the rhetorical sense, of course — would have acquired a huge amount of political goodwill. The government in Tokyo at that time certainly needed a political boost.
Why not let Obama apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then? For one thing, Japan understands better than most that they rely on the American nuclear umbrella for their safety — and not so much from China but from North Korea. At some point, Japan has to decide whether to adopt its own nuclear deterrent to push Kim Jong-il into real negotiations. The last thing they need is an American President using Hiroshima as a platform for unilateral disarmament while China bristles with nukes and the DPRK keeps testing more of its home-grown nuclear devices, which they are apparently preparing to do again.
Obama wisely took Yabunaka’s advice and decided not to address the issue at all. The fact that the Japanese had to tell Obama to curtail his 2009 apology tour is both ironic and, well, appalling.
Update: Let’s take a look at the text of the cable itself, via e-mailer AKElvis:
VFM Yabunaka pointed out that the Japanese public will have high expectations toward President Obama’s visit to Japan in November, as the President enjoys an historic level of popularity among the Japanese people. Anti-nuclear groups, in particular, will speculate whether the President would visit Hiroshima in light of his April 5 Prague speech on non-proliferation. He underscored, however, that both governments must temper the public’s expectations on such issues, as the idea of President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a “non-starter.”
This seems to indicate that Yabunaka was afraid of the p0litical backlash of Obama not apologizing at Hiroshima — or perhaps worried that an Obama appearance there would give the impression of an apology. The “non-starter” quote appears to be from Yabunaka himself, but it also notes that a “simple visit to Hiroshima without fanfare [as the Obama administration had apparently suggested] is sufficiently symbolic to convey the right message.” It’s not entirely clear whether the “message” referenced was disarmament or apology; I’d lean towards disarmament, since Yabunaka is referencing that immediately preceding this sentence. It’s at least a substantial possibility that the Obama administration didn’t get the nuance that a Hiroshima visit on its own might suggest a symbolic apology, rather than intending to deliver that message.
It’s worth noting that just the hint of a Hiroshima trip at the time started rumors of an Obama apology even apart from this cable, but the alternate conclusion of this cable is at least as legitimate as what I wrote above, and perhaps more so.