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Japan Marks Atomic Bomb Anniversaries Amid Indo-Pacific Tensions 

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui and representatives of bereaved families enshrine a list of the atomic bomb victims at the cenotaph during a ceremony at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 2023.
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui and representatives of bereaved families enshrine a list of the atomic bomb victims at the cenotaph during a ceremony at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 2023.

Japan is this week marking the 78th anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and brought an end to World War II.

After its defeat, Japan’s post-war constitution curtailed its armed forces and renounced war as a right of the nation. Growing threats from neighboring China and North Korea, however, have a prompted a radical change of course, as Japan embarks on a significant overhaul of its self-defense forces.

As Japan Marks Atomic Bomb Anniversaries, Postwar Military Taboos Break Amid Threats From China, North Korea
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Atomic bombing

The United States Air Force dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second nuclear weapon targeted the port city of Nagasaki. Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender on August 15.

Sueichi Kido was five years old when the bomb was dropped over his home city of Nagasaki on August 9. He lived around two kilometers from the epicenter of the blast.

“That morning, several mothers had gathered outside our home to prepare a meal of somen noodles,” the 83-year-old told VOA.

“Then I heard the sound of an airplane. One of the mothers said that it was strange, as the sound was very powerful. She said it was definitely an American airplane.”

“At the moment when I looked up in that direction, I was bathed in a flash of light, and with a boom, I was thrown about 20 meters away and passed out. My mother had burns to her face and chest. Half of my face was burned.”

An estimated 215,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Radiation sickness and cancers caused by the nuclear blasts would kill tens of thousands more in the months and years that followed.


Sueichi Kido travelled to Hiroshima August 6 to mark the anniversary, along with several other atomic bomb survivors — known in Japan as ‘hibakusha’ — from his home prefecture of Gifu.

Kido has spent much of his life campaigning for peace and nuclear disarmament. He fears the world has failed to heed that message.

“Every citizen in the world is now in danger of becoming a hibakusha. With [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's invasion of Ukraine, that danger is more present than ever. The possibility that nuclear weapons could actually be used has become very close,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, who addressed the delegates gathered in the city’s Peace Park, below the epicenter of the nuclear explosion.

“Given the reality that there are some who would use nuclear threats, leaders around the world need to face up to the fact that the theory of nuclear deterrence has failed and urgently begin to take concrete steps to move us away from the dangerous present towards our ideal world,” Matsui said.

Japan military

Japan’s defeat in 1945 saw its military curtailed to a small “self-defense force.” Its post-war constitution still renounces war as a right of the nation.

The voices calling for disarmament are competing with the reality of an increasingly tense and militarized Indo-Pacific region.

North Korea has launched dozens of missiles into the Sea of Japan in recent months. Meanwhile, China’s military actions around Taiwan and the South China Sea are seen as a direct threat to Japan, says Tetsuo Kotani of the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. China considers self-administered Taiwan a wayward province.

“There's a huge gap between Japan and China in terms of defense capabilities. So now the Japanese political leadership recognize that we have to fill this gap and the Japanese general public, you know, they are also supporting the Japanese political leadership because the Japanese people witnessed what happened to Ukraine,” Kotani told VOA.

Defense spending

In 2014, Japan’s late former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, initiated an increase in defense spending and a more flexible interpretation of the constitution.

Those changes have taken on a new urgency in recent months. In a policy document published last December, Japan outlined plans to double defense spending by 2027 and acquire strike capabilities against foreign bases — for decades a red line.

Public attitudes to nuclear weapons are also evolving, says analyst Kotani.

“Because Japan is the only victim of an atomic bombing, there is a consensus among the Japanese general public that Japan should seek nuclear disarmament, rather than a nuclear arms race. But given that fact that Japan’s neighboring countries – North Korea, China, Russia – are all increasing their nuclear arsenal and capabilities, the Japanese general public recognizes that we have to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella,” he told VOA.

Hibakusha hopes

Sueichi Kido, like many of the "hibakusha’ who experienced the atomic bombings, fears humanity is edging toward renewed global conflict.

“I'm worried. The most important thing to understand is this: disagreement between the countries of the world is not something that can be resolved by force,” Kido said.

Japan is entering a new era: discarding its post-war aversion to a powerful military.

Meanwhile, with each passing year, the number of atomic bomb survivors is dwindling. Their lasting hope is that the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will not be forgotten.