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World

Secretary Of State John Kerry Makes Historic Visit To Hiroshima

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Japan today, John Kerry said it was gut-wrenching - Hiroshima. The secretary of state is the highest-level serving U.S. official ever to visit the city's Peace Park and Museum. Kerry joined other foreign ministers at the museum, which features stories of some of the 140,000 people who died from the atomic bomb blast more than 70 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: Going through this museum was a reminder of the indisputable truth that war must never be the first resort.

SIEGEL: Kerry's visit has been talked about as a possible precursor to a visit by President Obama next month. For more on what that could mean for the U.S. and for Japan, we're joined by Sheila Smith. She is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: No sitting U.S. president has visited Hiroshima out of fear that such a visit would be seen as an apology. Jimmy Carter went there after he was no longer in office. Has thinking on that changed in recent years?

SMITH: I think so. I think today, especially with President Obama, this question of a visit to Hiroshima is not just about the war and the past. But it's really - as Secretary Kerry suggested, it's really about the future. And President Obama, in his speech in Prague early in his tenure as president, pointed out the moral responsibility of the United States in addressing the proliferation dilemma. And in doing so, I think he has opened the way for a visit to Hiroshima.

SIEGEL: What does today's visit by Secretary Kerry or, for that matter, a possible visit by President Obama - what might these achieve in the minds of the Japanese public?

SMITH: Well, I think there's a great hope in Japan that a U.S. - a sitting U.S. president will visit Hiroshima. That will provide a sense of closure, in some ways, for the generation now that participated in that war. The average age of those who remain alive today is over 80 years old. I think it's important also that people recognize that reconciliation is a core principle of the U.S. and Japanese relationship today.

Last year, as you know, in 2015, it was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and a very difficult set of commemorations were held by South Koreans, by Japanese and by Chinese. I think there is an opportunity here for the United States and Japan to lead the way in discussing the way in which the past, as painful as it may be, can also be remembered as we look to a deeper friendship and alliance relationship.

SIEGEL: In much of the world, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki are not just regarded as not a good thing to have been done. Many people regard this as mass murder. I mean, do the Japanese regard what we did to them as criminal, by and large?

SMITH: I think there are some in Japan who do think that this was a criminal act. It was knowing act of violence that clearly had only one outcome. But I think there's also, in Japan, an increasing willingness to discuss the firebombings of Tokyo. Many more Japanese died in March of 1945 in firebombing raids of Tokyo and other urban settings.

The fact that World War II was a terrible war with tremendous civilian casualties is a well-known historical fact. And I think the question now is whether or not we can discuss that reality and discuss it in a way that helps us effectively educate our populations - not just American and Japanese, but Chinese, European, Latin American and other global populations about the terrible damage of this kind of weaponry.

SIEGEL: Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.