HIROSHIMA — The cost of war is ever-present in this nuclear-scarred city, which this week is playing host to a high-stakes summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations amid Europe’s bloodiest conflict since WWII.
The Atomic Bomb Dome, bearing its skeleton roof and partially remaining walls from when it was irrevocably transformed at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, is a haunting testament to the horror wrought by man’s determination to pursue maximum destruction.
And it serves as the backdrop for a weekend summit at a time when the use of nuclear war is once again openly threatened on the world stage — from loose Russian talk, North Korean provocations, Iran’s nuclear buildup and China’s expanding arsenal.
Nearly 78 years removed from the detonation of the first atomic weapon, the world appears in the midst of a new nuclear arms race.
I arrived in Hiroshima early May 18 — just hours before parts of the city were shutting down for the high-profile summit. Having covered war on the ground in Israel, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Ukraine, I wanted to bear witness to one of the darkest periods in U.S.-Japan relations and look back on American leaders’ decision to introduce nuclear weapons in war and against civilians.
President Biden, attending the summit, will not be issuing an apology on behalf of the United States for using the atomic bomb, the White House said ahead of the president’s arrival in Japan.
That can be understood, as the White House is likely trying to avoid giving Republicans an attack line that Biden is weak on the world stage, or allow Russian and Chinese leaders a propaganda opportunity to distract from the death and oppression they are carrying out in the present day.
Biden will reaffirm the United States’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and participate in a wreath laying ceremony at the Peace Memorial Park, which was ground zero for the explosion of the so-called Little Boy atomic bomb, which detonated at a height of about 1,960 feet and, in a flash of light, laid waste to a city and its people.
To be sure, Biden and other leaders in the G-7 are focused on reinforcing support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal invasion, with evidence of war crimes piling up and Moscow stepping up its ballistic missile attacks on Kyiv and other cities.
But hosting the summit in Hiroshima requires a moment of reflection.
Just across from the Peace Memorial Park is the museum housing the testimonies of survivors and the victims of the atomic bombing — gruesome stories of people scorched by the heat of the blast, their skin hanging off their bodies just as their clothes hung like rags. An estimated 140,000 people died as a result of the bombing.
Among the museum’s displays include a 2010 photo of then-President Obama shaking hands with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev following the signing of the New START treaty, a watershed moment signaling a commitment from the two leading nuclear powers to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.
Today, Russia’s balking has put the New START treaty is on ice.
And Medvedev — in the position of deputy chair of Russia’s security council — is viewed as the mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use against Ukraine.
“The idea to punish a country that has the largest nuclear arsenal is absurd in and of itself and potentially creates a threat to the existence of mankind,” Medvedev said last year, in response to the International Criminal Court opening a war crimes probe into Russia’s war.
The museum has yet to update that photo to reflect the current state of nuclear tensions. But the museum’s entrance includes a display of an April 2022 letter Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui sent to Biden, vehemently protesting the U.S. carrying out “subcritical nuclear testing” in June and September — testing that the U.S. says is important to assess the reliability of nuclear stockpiles without full nuclear testing.
“The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to fuel the idea that military forces are the only way to suppress violence committed by military forces,” the letter reads. “From the United States, I strongly demand the following: deeply reflect upon the horrific realities of what a single atomic bomb did to Hiroshima and the tragic experiences of the hibakusha [survivors].”
Outside the museum and park, the entire city memorializes the horror.
The Inarimachi bridge, less than a mile from Peace Memorial Park, bears a placard with a photo showing the steel rails warped by the blast and describes how survivors, fleeing the epicenter of the destruction, rushed to the river to relieve their burns and quench a torturous thirst, as dead bodies floated downstream.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is from Hiroshima. He was born 12 years after the bombing but is said to have family members who were victims. Nuclear nonproliferation is one of his priority global objectives — even as he is ushering in a new era of Japanese militarization in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kishida, during a visit to Washington in January, said he would put forward Japan’s pledge to “revive the momentum for nuclear disarmament” without “sacrificing deterrence in the midst of the severe security environment.”
But this comes as Kishida is overseeing a massive military mobilization in Japan in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kishida visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in March, an extraordinary show of solidarity from an Asian nation.
While the G-7 is primarily a grouping of the world’s top economies, it has evolved into a strategic alliance confronting Putin’s revanchism; the group kicked Russia out in 2014 after its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
The city has set up a wraparound display in the Peace Park showcasing its rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the atomic bomb — reconnecting its water supply, setting up its electricity network, inventing its signature dish of Okonomiyaki (Soba noodles, egg, meat, cabbage and BBQ sauce).
At the end of the display, a placard invites visitors to “deliver your hopes for peace to Ukraine.”
World leaders are gathering in Hiroshima at a time in which experts warn the risk of nuclear confrontation is at its highest since the Cold War.
In previews of the G-7 summit agenda, U.S. administration officials included commitments to nuclear nonproliferation as part of a wider list of catastrophic threats facing the world. Top among them are last-minute efforts for nations to rein in fossil fuel use as the world careens toward irreversible global damage from man-made climate change.
The group of nations will also navigate competing interests on confronting the threat posed by China without losing access to its market of more than a billion people.
But reinforcing solidarity among G-7 nations to support Ukraine pushing back against Russian aggression is sure to be the primary focus, with Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling and Hiroshima’s haunted legacy front of mind.
Kishida, in a tweet on his way to Hiroshima ahead of the summit, reaffirmed his determination “to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.”