More than 50,000 people gathered in Hiroshima on Thursday morning to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing that obliterated the city near the end of the second World War.
Japsn's prime minister Shinzo Abe led expressions of condolences to the roughly140,000 victims of the attack, and called for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.
Thousands of protesters chanted anti-war slogans a short distance from the ceremony in Hiroshima’s memorial park. Scattered shouts of “no more war” could be heard at the end of Abe’s speech.
Many survivors of the bombing are upset at Abe’s attempts to loosen the shackles of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which was written in 1946 during the American occupation of the country.
The “Little Boy” uranium bomb that detonated over Hiroshima killed an estimated 70,000 on August 6th, 1945. Tens of thousands more died in the subsequent months and years from burns and radiation-related illnesses. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days later are still the only instances of nuclear weapons used in warfare.
Hiroshima's mayor Kazumi Matsui called the atomic bombs an "absolute evil."
“Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons and policymakers in the nuclear armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking,” he said in his speech. “On the 70th anniversary, now is the time to start taking action.”
Among the roughly 50,000 people listening to Matsui in the crowd was US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and America's under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Rose Gottemoeller. America still maintains the world's largest, most advanced nuclear arsenal.
Japan’s nuclear-armed neighbours, China and North Korea, did not send delegates to the ceremony, which was attended by representatives from a record 100 countries and territories, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Abe laid a wreath at the ceremony and said as the only victim of a nuclear attack, it is Japan’s “responsibility and duty” to achieve a world without the weapons. “Seventy years on I want to reemphasise the necessity of world peace.”
But some listeners expressed disappointment in his speech. “What he says is right but what he is actually doing is different,” said Satsuki Nakasei (14), a high school student. “He is moving Japan away from pacifism.”
Japan’s parliament is deliberating a clutch of security bills that would allow the country’s armed forces to defend allies – principally America – if under attack. Abe says the bills are part of a strategy of what he calls “proactive pacifism.”
Defence Minister Gen Nakatani sparked controversy on the eve of the ceremony when he admitted that the legislation would allow Japan “theoretically” to transport nuclear weapons for an ally, though he added that the country’s non-nuclear principles ruled that out.
Opposition politicians called the comment an insult to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nakatani later withdrew the remark and apologised.
The use of atomic weapons on Japan still bitterly divides opinion. American leaders continue to insist that the bombs helped shorten the war and save lives. Polls show most Americans support that view. But survivors and many historians say the war could have been ended without the killing of over 200,000, including tens of thousands of children.
Local museums stress that the crew of the Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb about 500m over the centre of the city, were not aiming for military or industrial facilities but its civilian population.