Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Obama and the absence of apology in Hiroshima

Reading Time: 4 mins
US President Barack Obama speaks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

‘As President of the United States of America, I express my profound apologies for the sufferings inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombings’. These, of course, are the words that we are not going to hear Barack Obama speak in Hiroshima on 27 May


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

, when he becomes the first sitting US president to visit the city since the atomic bombings in August 1945. It is sad that we will not hear at least a version of these words. A simple but sincere apology might bring some peace of mind to the survivors and their families, and could have a profound effect on Japanese society.

The forces that shaped Japan’s postwar history created a situation where the United States has never apologised, and the Japanese government has been ambivalent about memorialising the atomic bombings. This uneasy relationship with the memory of the bombings is surely one reason why Japan has such difficulty in apologising sincerely for its own past aggression. The deep sense of unassuaged victimhood left by the bombings feeds a reluctance among many (though not all) Japanese to acknowledge their country’s own role as an aggressor. An apology from the US president might help to dissolve that feeling of victimhood. It could also provide a model for reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours.

But Obama has already stated that he will not apologise. Political resistance in the United States is too strong. Many still accept the story that the atomic bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives by shortening the war, despite powerful arguments for taking a different view of history. The Soviet declaration of war on Japan was almost certainly as important a factor as the atomic bombings in pushing Japan into surrender. There is also a credible argument that Japan would have surrendered without Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the Japanese government had felt assured that the emperor would be retained after Japan’s defeat. Since the United States in any case intended to retain the Japanese emperor in a symbolic position, this places a huge question mark over attempts to justify the mass suffering caused by the atomic bombs.

But the absence of an apology is not only a result of US decisions. There is little evidence that the Japanese government wants the United States to say sorry. Among documents released by Wikileaks in 2011 is a secret cable quoting a leading Japanese diplomat as arguing against a US apology. It seems that the Japanese government fears that an apology might promote anti-nuclear sentiments in Japan, and is all too aware that it could be put on the spot by a sincere act of repentance from the US leader.

If Obama does not apologise, what will he do instead? Can his visit have any meaning without an apology? Can gestures speak louder than words? When, in 1970, the then West German chancellor Willy Brandt fell on his knees before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto, his silent act probably did more than any spoken apology could have done to express remorse for the wrongs of the Holocaust. Brandt’s gesture was powerful, though, not just because of its visible sincerity, but above all because of the Chancellor’s own personal history as a man who had resisted Nazism. The Brandt ‘kniefall’ spoke loudly because there was never any doubt of Brandt’s willingness to also put an apology into words.

Hiroshima is not the Warsaw Ghetto, and Obama is not Willy Brandt. Yet his actions in Hiroshima will matter. Though verbally apologising is an essential part of ongoing processes of reconciliation, listening is also vital. The resentment towards the Japanese government felt by the victims of Japanese wartime aggression arises not just from its recent non-apologies, but from its refusal to listen and learn from their stories. Even if he does not say the word ‘sorry’, the sincerity with which Obama listens to the stories of the victims will be a touchstone of the meaning of his visit.

He needs to listen to the silences too. I will never forget hearing a friend who survived the bombing of Hiroshima describing the event. Half way through the story, his words faltered and then stopped. More than 60 years on, his experiences of that day in August 1945 were still unspeakable. If Obama can listen intently to the silences that still haunt Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps his visit can bring us closer to the moment when the United States and its allies can finally speak the three words that still need to be said: we are sorry.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.

5 responses to “Obama and the absence of apology in Hiroshima”

  1. I am stunned that my friend Tessa, consistently an insightful and no-nonsense critic of Japanese ‘denier’ history, could fall into the trap of equating Willy Brandt’s apology for the Nazi Holocaust with anything Obama or any other US leader might say about Truman’s decision to try and force an end to the global catastrophe of WWII by the use of nuclear weapons. This is simply ‘Japan as victim’, which she knows is nonsense. The United States was the agent of Japan’s destruction, but the cause was the Japanese Imperial Government’s actions and decisions. Perfectly understandable Cold War angst about the madness of nuclear ‘mutual destruction’ cannot be allowed to impose ‘facts’ retroactively on what Truman thought he knew at the time, what he was told and consequently what he was trying to guard against. Had Truman not forced the issue, it is uncontestable that the Army would have kept fighting and thus given Stalin the time he needed to invade Hokkaido. Then Stalin would have demanded a Soviet Zone in Tokyo, a la the division of Berlin. What about the prospect of a North and South Japan is appealing to critics of Hiroshima?

    • Dear Chris,
      Thanks for your comment, but I think you are misreading what I’ve said. As I tried to emphasise, of course I am in no way trying to equate the atomic bombings with holocaust. I am just trying to make a point about the value of gestures as a way of expressing remorse about events of history. And of course I accept that it was Japanese aggression in Asia which caused the chain of events that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s just that I still profoundly question the necessity and ethics of the use of the atomic bombs. On this I guess we just have to differ. In the original version of the article, I had a longer version of the “apology” at the beginning. It got edited in the interests of word length, but I’ll add the rest of it here, in the hope that it makes what I am trying to say clearer (even though I guess it’s not going to make you agree!) The missing part of the “apology” reads:
      “The dropping of the atomic bombs was part of a chain of violence which began in China in the 1930s and continued in Pearl Harbor and throughout Asia and the Pacific in the 1940s. But this first use of atomic weapons opened the age of nuclear warfare and inflicted terrible suffering its victims. Therefore we are truly sorry. We remember the men, women and children – Japanese, Korean and of other nationalities – who were killed or injured, who suffered from radiation sickness or lost loved ones. Remembering them, we pledge to create a world free from nuclear weapons and from fear of nuclear war.”

  2. Valid points made here about the USA’s lack of apology for having used the atomic bombs as a poor role model for the Japanese when it comes to apologizing for its Pacific War actions in Korea, China, etc. Also, the fact that the USA allowed the Emperor to remain on the throne and subsequently reinstated some of Japan’s war leaders to positions of authority in the 1950’s gave the message that geopolitical considerations/anti-communism trumped morality when it came to leadership.

    I also agree that Obama can accomplish a lot if he would meet with some of the survivors of the bombings. No need to formally apologize. Just spend time with them, listen empathically to their life experiences, and them make a statement of concern and support in conjunction with a determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons. THAT would be a great way for Obama to live up to the legacy of his having been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

  3. “There is also a credible argument that Japan would have surrendered without Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the Japanese government had felt assured that the emperor would be retained after Japan’s defeat.”

    Are there really credible arguments for this? It is my understanding that the Army was holding out for their planned “decisive battle” in order to obtain favorable peace terms. Also the Army had also attached other terms as well, which were there be no occupation, Japan disarm themselves and that any war crimes trials be conducted by the Japanese themselves. Indeed if the Army had ever accepted surrender with the condition that the Emperor be retained, it was after the A-bombs.

  4. I agree totally with Chris Nelson. Any comparison with the Holocaust perpetrated by the 3rd Reich is simply not applicable. This was indeed an act of war in response to aggression and an effort to conclude it post haste. No sitting American President with the ability to end the war and save lives could have responded to charges that he had not done so. Furthermore, where would the apologies end? The fire bombing of Tokyo was arguably more horrific that Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Is an apology warranted there? Or Bomber Harris’s bombing of Dresden? Or Nazi bombings of London?

    The Japanese atrocities against Nanjing and other places in Asia were unprovoked. This is not the case with the atomic bombings. I think President Obama set precisely the right tone in projecting forward while also listening to the leadership of the Hibakusha.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.