At a ceremony Tuesday marking the 68th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to try his utmost to realize a nuclear-free world and to offer better support to atomic-bomb survivors fighting radiation-caused health problems.
In his speech at the ceremony at the Peace Memorial Park near Ground Zero, Abe also said Japan will maintain its three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory to avoid repeating the devastation of atomic bombing.
"We, the Japanese, are the only atomic bombed citizens in war. We bear the responsibility to steadily realize a world without nuclear weapons," Abe said in front of about 50,000 participants in the annual event.
This year's commemoration comes as Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which won a landslide victory in last month's upper house election, seeks to restart nuclear power plants, sell Japanese nuclear technology abroad and change the nation's pacifist Constitution.
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui expressed worries over the government's drive to strike a civil nuclear cooperation deal with nuclear-armed India, saying even if such an agreement "promotes their economic relationship, it is likely to hinder nuclear weapons abolition."
Calling atomic bombs "the ultimate inhumane weapon and an absolute evil," Matsui urged the national government to strengthen its ties with nations pursuing the abolition of nuclear weapons, noting a growing number of countries calling for such action.
Matsui made the remark after Japan recently declined to back a statement urging that nuclear weapons never again be used under any circumstances. The statement was prepared in April at a preparatory committee session in Geneva for the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review meeting.
Antinuclear groups and other peace campaigners have criticized the government stance, which they believe stems from Japan's reliance on the deterrence offered by U.S. nuclear umbrella.
But Matsui stopped short of clarifying the city's stance on the appropriateness of nuclear power as an energy source and the issue of constitutional revision. Abe also did not touch on the issue of nuclear energy that stays contentious following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Matsui said, "Hiroshima is a place that embodies the grand pacifism of the Japanese constitution," and "We urge the national government to rapidly develop and implement a responsible energy policy that places top priority on safety and the livelihoods of the people."
Nearly all of Japan's 50 commercial nuclear power reactors remain offline following the Fukushima plant crisis that began in March 2011.
A moment of silence was observed at 8:15 a.m., the time the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima at an altitude of about 600 meters, killing an estimated 140,000 people by the end of 1945. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9 that year, and Japan surrendered six days later, bringing World War II to an end.
The ceremony was attended by representatives of 70 countries including U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and representatives of such nuclear powers as Britain and France as well as Vuk Jeremic, president of the U.N. General Assembly. China was not represented at the event for the fifth consecutive year.
Other participants included Tamotsu Baba, mayor of Namie town in Fukushima Prefecture, Oscar-winning U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone who made a documentary series examining why the bombs were dropped.
Abe, who also attended the ceremony in 2007 during his first stint as prime minister, said Japan bears responsibility to keep conveying nuclear bombs' cruelty to future generations and beyond the country's borders.
A message from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was read out by his proxy, saying, "Together, let us reaffirm our commitment to create a world free of nuclear weapons." It added that would be the "most meaningful way" to pave the way for a better future for all. Ban became the first U.N. chief to attend the Hiroshima ceremony in 2010 but has not come since.
Among those who took part from Fukushima Prefecture, Maki Nitto, 30, said that while she had learned about the bombing at school, until the Fukushima disaster caused her to temporarily evacuate, she had "never thought it had anything to do with me."
"Although nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs are different, both nuclear issues have the same root," said Nitto, who came to the event with friends.
Many survivors, called hibakusha, and others started gathering before daybreak around the park to offer prayers for their lost family members and other victims.
One of the early visitors to the memorial monument, a 70-year-old Hiroshima man who identified himself only as Toshikazu, said he lost his uncle, then aged 12.
"When I was a child, I didn't like to hear my mother talking about what it was like after the bombing and ran away. But now I think I should have listened to her more. I regret it," he said.
Terumi Manno, 86, who lost "many" of her family members, said she wants to continue to come to pray on Aug. 6 at the memorial "as long as I have breath."
"No matter what happens, I don't want a war again. I want people to solve (issues) with words," she said. "We went through the bombing. There is something that can never be understood unless you experience it."
The number of hibakusha survivors from both bombings stood at 201,779 as of March, down 9,051 from a year before. Their average age was 78.80.