US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laid flowers Tuesday at a memorial to the Hiroshima atomic bombing, becoming the highest-ranking sitting US official to pay respects at the site.
Doves fly around the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park during a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima on August 6. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has laid flowers at the memorial to the Hiroshima atomic bombing, becoming the highest-ranking sitting US official to pay respects at the site.(AFP/File/Toru Yamanaka)
Pelosi, a Democrat who is the third top US official after the president and vice president, bowed both before and after laying a bunch of carnations and white lilies on a hot sunny day in the southwestern Japanese city.
Pelosi was invited to Hiroshima -- which was devastated by a US atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 near the end of World War II -- for a meeting of parliament speakers of the Group of Eight major industrial nations.
Schoolchildren waved the flags of Japan, the United States and other G8 nations and sang hymns calling for world peace after Pelosi and other parliament speakers offered flowers in honour of those killed in the bombing.
The speakers then headed to the Hiroshima bombing museum, where Akihiro Takahashi, 77, recounted his experience of living through the world's first nuclear attack.
Pelosi appeared emotional at times, nodding and grimacing as Takahashi spoke and showed horrific images of bombing victims who were covered by severe burns or who had lost their limbs and eyeballs.
After Takahashi's speech, Pelosi shook his hand and quietly moved her lips to say: "Thank you."
Takahashi, who once served as the chief of the museum, said he wanted to know what the G8 speakers, particularly Pelosi, thought about his presentation.
"She is the number three person in line to press the nuclear button," he later told reporters.
"For us atomic bombing victims, all nuclear weapons are evil. I really wanted to know how much they understood after seeing the museum and hearing my story," he said.
More than 140,000 people were killed in the attack on Hiroshima, either instantly or in the days and weeks ahead from radiation or horrific burns.
The United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki three days later, killing another 70,000 people. Japan surrendered less than a week later, ending World War II.
No sitting US presidents have visited the Hiroshima memorial, although Jimmy Carter visited after leaving office and Richard Nixon came as a private citizen between his stints as vice president and president.
Hiroshima residents said they hoped that one day a sitting US president would visit.
"I hope they will have the courage to come here. It doesn't matter how late the visit has been since the war," said local resident Hiroaki Takachiho, 76.
"The Americans, they are saying the atomic bombing was justified, right?" he said.
"They are the leader of the world. Unless America takes steps to scrap nuclear weapons, nothing will happen," he said as he watched the flower-laying ceremony.
Mainstream opinion in Japan almost unanimously considers the atomic bombings to have been immoral, with many arguing that the United States was trying to show its strength against the Soviet Union in anticipation of the Cold War.
Views are much more divided in the United States, where veteran groups passionately argue that the decision to drop the atomic bombs forced Japan into early surrender and saved many lives.
The Hiroshima visit was arranged by the speaker of Japan's lower house, Yohei Kono, an outspoken defender of the country's post-World War II pacifism.
Bernard Accoyer, president of the French National Assembly, told the group that he felt "extremely emotional" in Hiroshima, calling the city a "symbol of man's madness."
Accoyer, whose country also possesses atomic weapons, called on the world to put pressure on Iran, saying Tehran's nuclear drive was "one of the most serious threats to world peace."