The first visit by an American President to Hiroshima has important domestic and international political ramifications, writes Stephen Nagy.
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this week has important messages for different audiences at home and abroad.
In the US, the President’s visit is seen by critics as part of Obama’s “global apology tour”, symbolising American foreign policy impotency in a world with a growing number of autocratic regimes, strongmen and nation states that openly disregard international law. They cite Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression with the Ukraine, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and chaos in Syria and the Middle East as failures and weakness in American leadership. For them, the President’s visit only reinforces and ultimately weakens the US.
In contrast, supporters view his visit as an historic opportunity to demonstrate American leadership on denuclearisation, reconciliation and the consolidation of the US’ commitment to Japan and East Asia as part of the so-called Asian pivot or rebalance. Book ending his Presidency with the visit to Hiroshima, Obama sends the message to the region and the world that the US is willing to lead the denuclearisation process in concert with its partners.
As the first President to visit Hiroshima, another powerful message is being sent to neighbouring countries that the tragedy and bitterness of World War II does not have to continue in bitter perpetuity. Reconciliation is possible but requires a partner, contrition and a concerted effort on both sides to engage each other through culture, economy, politics and even security. Lastly, the visit to this symbolic place demonstrates that the US stands side-by-side and sees Japan as a legitimate, status quo power that is not out of step with the international community.
In Japan, the meaning of Obama’s visit at the elite and public levels represents a continuation of the bifurcated post-WW2 views of Japan’s wartime experience. For the public, the visit consolidates Japan’s post-WW2 identity as the only country to have experienced the horrors of an atomic attack. As victims of the bomb, the country has passionately pursued a non-nuclear world through a commitment to pacifism as embodied in the Constitution’s Article 9. Leftists will use the moment to promote their pacifist, victim identity and anti-Abe agenda linking Japan’s atomic past to a real possible atomic future if the Prime Minister is allowed to change or alter the Constitution.
This victim identity is incongruent with many of the conservative elites who believe that Japan’s wartime past was not unlike other imperial powers of the time and as such they believe that Japan should not be admonished for its wartime behaviour. Those conservative elites will interpret President Obama’s visit as a vindication of their historical view that no nation has a monopoly in terms of wartime brutality and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were racially charged, inhuman acts that were on par with or even surpassed Japanese brutality in China.
These diverging views on Japan’s post-WW2 identities manifest themselves in the challenges we see in Sino-Japanese relations today. In China, accusations continue that Japan remains unrepentant for its wartime aggression and brutality towards the Chinese people and is not deserving of an apology for the nuclear deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, the persistent insistence of Japan having a proper understanding of history, i.e. Japan was the victimiser not the victim in WW2, as a precursor to meaningful relations continues to be a barrier to more comprehensive, mutually beneficial relations moving forward. This visit will be seen as a legitimisation of the victim narrative and thus deepen the already wide rift between Japan and China.
For Abe and Obama, the visit to Hiroshima is an overt message to China that the US and Japan stand together and that their security alliance is not one-dimensional. Rather it is a comprehensive alliance based on shared norms, deepening economic ties through the Trans Pacific Partnership, political cooperation and broader security cooperation in the region surrounding Japan but also in the South China Sea and other areas considered to be in the global public good.
Lastly, the visit has significant foreign and domestic policy implications for Abe. Domestically, Obama’s visit under his watch allows Abe to accrue valuable political capital for upcoming Upper House elections. The visit, the hosting of the G7, and the December 2015 Comfort Women agreement with South Korea are overt examples of Abe’s political leadership, steadiness and Japan’s international standing among the world’s leading states. Importantly, the visit to Hiroshima and Obama’s commitment to denuclearisation resonate deeply with Japan’s pacifist and anti-nuclear voters allowing Abe to further consolidate his power to push through tougher reforms as part of his economic revitalisation strategy known as Abenomics.
In the foreign policy arena, the visit is equally significant as Abe delicately balances a commitment to pacifism and denuclearisation while concurrently expanding security, economic and political linkages with Southeast Asian countries and globally under the banner of “proactive Pacifism” with a growingly assertive China front of mind.