For the first time today, the United States attended a ceremony commemorating its atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 65 years after the Japanese city's obliteration rang in the nuclear age. Representatives from more than 70 nations joined tens of thousands at the emotional event, held under an azure sky as clear as that on the morning of August 6, 1945 when Hiroshima was transformed into a terrifying inferno.
The United States' Second World War allies Britain and France, both declared nuclear powers, also sent their first diplomats to the ceremony in the western Japanese city in a sign of support for the goal of nuclear disarmament. The mournful toll of a temple bell marked the start of a one-minute silence at 8.15am, when the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay had dropped a device that instantly killed tens of thousands in Hiroshima.
"The human race must not repeat the horror and misery caused by atomic bombs," the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan said in a speech after 1,000 white doves were released in a symbolic gesture for peace. "Japan, as the only nation to have been attacked by the war-time atomic bombs, has a moral responsibility to lead the efforts toward realisation of a world without nuclear weapons," he said. "Little Boy", the four-tonne uranium bomb detonated over Hiroshima, caused a blinding flash and a fireball hot enough to melt sand into glass and vapourise every human within a 1.6 kilometre radius.
An estimated 140,000 people died instantly in Hiroshima or succumbed to burns and radiation sickness soon after the blast, and over 70,000 perished as a result of another US atomic attack on the port of Nagasaki three days later. Japan, a wartime ally of Nazi Germany, surrendered on August 15, ending the war in the Pacific after years of ferocious combat with US Marines on islands strung across the ocean.
The United States has never acceded to demands in Japan for an apology for the loss of innocent lives in the atomic bombings, which many Western historians believe were necessary to bring a quick end to the war and avoid a land invasion that could have been even more costly. The US ambassador John Roos laid a wreath to remember the victims, reflecting a shift in policy under the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Barack Obama.
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said yesterday that Mr Obama "thought it appropriate" to recognise the anniversary as he vies to rid the world of nuclear arms. Some saw Mr Roos's attendance as an indication that Mr Obama would visit Hiroshima during a trip to Japan later this year, as the sides seek to improve ties following controversy over an agreement to relocate a US airbase in Okinawa.
"For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realise a world without nuclear weapons," the US ambassador said in a statement. Hanako Nogami, 92, braved the hot weather to attend the ceremony to pray for the soul of her brother, who was in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, and whose remains were never found. "I looked for him for days after the bombing, but he was nowhere to be found," she told AFP.
The United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon also attended, becoming the first UN chief to take part in the annual event at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. "For many of you, that day endures, as vivid as the white light that seared the sky, as dark as the black rains that followed," Mr Ban said. "For as long as nuclear weapons exist, we will live under a nuclear shadow." Two decades after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia still have more than 22,000 nuclear warheads between them. France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan and Israel have a combined total of about 1,000, says the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.
The global stockpile is equivalent to about 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. * AFP