Despite anger and calls from the survivors urging Japan to join the historic treaty, a world free of nuclear weapons remains elusive as the atomic-bombed nation sticks to a “realistic approach” advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The prospect of survivors’s wishes being fulfilled had looked brighter when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima in May last year, when he espoused “a world without nuclear weapons.”
Last month, just over a year after his visit, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 members of the United Nations. The accord acknowledges the “unacceptable suffering” of the hibakusha — survivors of the bombings on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, that killed an estimated 214,000 people by the end of that year.
But Japan and others under the U.S. nuclear umbrella refused to take part in negotiations, as did the world’s nuclear-armed states.
Defending Japan’s stance, Abe said at a news conference in Hiroshima that joining the treaty could “result in the distance between nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons states being further widened.”
His remark angered 78-year-old Hiroshima hibakusha Hiroshi Harada, former head of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
“Of course the hibakusha are angry, but we’re getting old and those of us who can really speak out are getting fewer and fewer,” Harada said.
The survivors’ average age was 81.41 as of March.
“If the Japanese government isn’t going to do anything, I don’t want (Abe) to keep describing Japan in his speeches as ‘the only country to have sustained atomic bombings in wartime,’ ” Harada said. “If you’re going to tout that fact, you need to follow it up with the appropriate action.”
Hiroshima peace activist Haruko Moritaki, 78, said it was “embarrassing” how Japan’s envoy turned up on the first day of treaty negotiations at the U.N. headquarters in New York in March, only to say the country would not be taking part.
“Japan has shamed itself on the international stage … unless we change our policy, we are in no position to try to persuade other countries to abolish nuclear weapons,” she said.
In addition to Japan’s reluctant stance, Obama’s successor Donald Trump has called for the United States to bolster its nuclear arsenal, staking a position at odds with decades of efforts to scale back the nation’s atomic weaponry.
Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, said developments since Obama’s visit have shown the futility of expecting the U.S. administration to move closer to a world without nuclear weapons.
Speaking in Hiroshima, Kuznick said that while Obama subsequently abandoned consideration of a “no first use” policy that would have made the world safer, and authorized a $1 trillion program to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, his successor is “impulsive.”
Before his election last year, Trump had also suggested that Japan and South Korea could acquire nuclear weapons in the future, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to rule this out in a March interview with U.S. media, according to U.S. reports.
In such an environment, the Abe government has apparently made a judgment that it cannot join the treaty without compromising its heavily U.S.-dependent national security, particularly in light of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“Having seen the transition from Obama to Trump, I’ve found it basically doesn’t matter who’s in charge,” peace activist Moritaki said. “It’s both our duty and our right to stand up for peace on our own.”
But despite the difficult environment facing Japan, Akira Kawasaki, an executive committee member of Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization Peace Boat, said joining the treaty would put Japan in a better position to persuade Pyongyang to disarm.
“Many people do not fully understand the historic importance of this treaty … it provides a pathway for ex-nuclear weapon states to dismantle their arsenals, and as of the present there’s no other international treaty that does that,” Kawasaki said.
Kawasaki suggests that if Japan cannot join now, it should set a policy goal to join the treaty with one condition: That both North and South Korea must also join at the same time.
“Having North Korea join the treaty will benefit Japan and South Korea in a security sense, while those two countries will have to commit to not stationing U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil, thus reassuring North Korea and encouraging it to disarm,” he said.
Although such a move might be mere symbolism without a change of leadership in North Korea, it is something the Abe government can do for now to regain some integrity as the guardian of the only country to have sustained wartime atomic bombings, Kawasaki said.
Some sort of commitment — that is what 83-year-old Sachiko Matsuo called for in Nagasaki, where at age 11 she lived through the atomic bombing that killed nearly half her family.
“We hibakusha have taken our time to get to this point, so we understand that not everything can be done quickly,” she said. “But (Japan) mustn’t give up. What we need is a first step.”