U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos [center left] greets Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba on Friday at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park for the 65th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing in Hiroshima.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos [center left] greets Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba on Friday at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park for the 65th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing in Hiroshima. AP
A U.S. representative for the first time joined Japan's annual memorial ceremony to mark the 1945 atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, a 65th anniversary event that organizers hope will bolster global efforts toward nuclear disarmament.
For decades, a moment of silence and then the sounding of a bell in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park has become the ritual to pay respect to those who died in the American bombing. This year, calls for the total elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020 were bolstered by the presence of U.S. Ambassador John Roos, who stood among representatives of a record 74 countries.
"Let us realize our dream of a world free of nuclear weapons, so our children and all succeeding generations can live in freedom, security and peace," Ban Ki-moon said Friday, making the first appearance by a U.N. secretary-general.
Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, an A-bomb survivor and leading anti-nuclear activist, said it is time for Japan to take the lead in nuclear disarmament toward "turning a new page in human history."
"I offer my prayers to those who died — we will not make you be patient much longer," he said.
Akiba welcomed Washington's decision to send Roos to the commemoration, which began with an offering of water to the 140,000 who perished in the first of two nuclear bombings that prompted Japan's surrender in World War II.
"We need to communicate to every corner of the globe the intense yearning of the survivors for the abolition of nuclear weapons," Akiba told the 55,000 people at the ceremony.
Along with the U.S., nuclear powers Britain and France also made their first official appearance at the memorial. China, which sent a low-ranking official in 2008, did not participate. Officials said Beijing did not give a reason.
Hiroshima was careful to ensure that the memorial — while honoring the dead — emphasized a forward-looking approach, focusing not on whether the bombing was justified, a point that many Japanese dispute, but on averting any future nuclear attacks.
Roos said the memorial was a chance to show resolve toward nuclear disarmament, which President Obama has emphasized as one of his administration's top objectives.
"For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realize a world without nuclear weapons," Roos said in a statement.
Ban, who presented flowers at the Eternal Flame in Peace Memorial Park, said this year's memorial will send a signal to the world that nuclear weapons must be destroyed.
"Life is short, but memory is long," Ban said. "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."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bows in front of the cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park before delivering a speech during the annual ceremony marking the 1945 atomic bombing.
He added that the time has come to move from "ground zero to global zero" — a world without any nuclear arms.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's 190 member countries in May adopted a plan to speed up arms reductions and take further steps toward banning nuclear arms in the Middle East.
The nuclear treaty recognizes five atomic-weapon states: the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have also developed nuclear weapons but are not party to the treaty.
Independent analysts estimate the current total world stockpile of nuclear warheads at more than 22,000 — less than one-third the number at the peak of the Cold War in the 1980s but still enough for more than 100,000 Hiroshimas.
In May, Washington acknowledged a total stockpile of 5,113 nuclear warheads as of September 2009, down 75 percent from 1989. The U.S. and Russia in April agreed to shrink the limit on a specific type of long-range warheads to 1,550 for each country, down about one-third from the current ceiling.
Washington's decision to attend the anniversary has been welcomed by Japan's government but has generated complex feelings among some Japanese who see the 1945 bombing as unjustified and want the United States to apologize.
"I'm not sure if I would welcome President Obama here," said Katsuki Fujii, a 20-year-old college student. "I don't think we have the same idea what peace is. He seems to think some wars are good and some are bad — I think they are all bad."
Katsuko Nishibe, a 61-year-old peace activist, said she welcomed the decision to send Roos, but added that she thought it was dangerous to think that the bombing of Hiroshima was justified.
"We have a very different interpretation of history," she said. "But we can disagree about history and still agree that peace is what is important. That is the real lesson of Hiroshima."
Concerns that attending the anniversary ceremony would reopen old wounds had kept the U.S. away until this year.
Lucy Craft contributed to this report for NPR from Tokyo.