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Obama, Abe heed politics of contrition on Hiroshima visit

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AP/Carolyn Kaster

(Read caption) President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speak to media in Shima, Japan, Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

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Laying bare the complex politics of reconciliation and contrition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday rejected the idea of visiting Pearl Harbor to reciprocate for President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima later this week. Obama, for his part, said he would use his time in Hiroshima to honor all those killed in World War II and to push for a world without nuclear weapons.

The White House made clear well in advance of Obama's arrival in Japan that the president would not apologize for the U.S. bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima and launched the nuclear age.

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Abe, who met with Obama before the opening of a two-day summit of wealthy nations, was asked to reflect on the significance of the president's trip to Hiroshima and whether he would in turn visit Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where a surprise attack by the Japanese military on Dec. 7, 1941, killed more than 2,400 people, wounded scores and led the United States into the war.

Abe spoke first of the suffering of the Japanese people: "Numerous citizens sacrificed their lives. And even now, there are those of us suffering because of the atomic bombing," he said. Their desire, he added, is for the world "never to repeat" such a tragedy, and he expressed hope that Obama's visit would lend momentum to the goal of a nuclear-free world.

As for a visit to Pearl Harbor, Abe said: "At this moment I don't have any specific plan to visit Hawaii." He did not foreclose the idea of a visit entirely, but clearly sidestepped any suggestion that reciprocity was called for, as some have suggested.

The two leaders' remarks made clear the sensitivities still attached to both countries' wartime actions, and previewed the strong emotions that will be attached to Obama's trip to Hiroshima on Friday, when he will be the first sitting president to pay his respects.

In Japan, Pearl Harbor is not seen as a parallel for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later, but as an attack on a military installation that did not target civilians. Obama's visit to Hiroshima would be seen in Japan as less of a coup for Abe if it appeared to be linked to a visit to Pearl Harbor.

In the U.S., many believe the atomic bombs hastened the end of the war, saving countless other lives, though some historians say the U.S. was eager to use the weapons and Japan would have surrendered soon anyway.

Both Obama and Abe made a point to stress the strength of the current U.S.-Japanese alliance.

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But Abe was unflinching in his harsh criticism of the U.S. over a new irritant that has inflamed the Japanese public: the recent arrest of a former Marine in connection with the murder of a Japanese woman in Okinawa, where anti-U.S. military sentiment is high because of a heavy American troop presence. The crime could fuel further opposition to the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps air station on the southern Japanese island, a long-delayed project that Abe has been trying to push forward in the face of large protests.

Abe declared himself "just speechless" at the crime, and called for swift investigation of the offender "who committed this self-centered and absolutely despicable crime."

Obama, for his part, offered his condolences and "deepest regrets." He said any violent crime by U.S. personnel or contractors was appalling and pledged to do "everything that we can to prevent any crimes from taking place of this sort and that involves reviewing procedures and making sure that everything that can be done to prevent such occurrences from happening again are put into place."

As for his visit to Hiroshima, Obama said the trip would be "a reminder that war involves suffering," just as was the previous three days he spent in Vietnam, where he was the third president to visit since the end of the Vietnam War.

"We should always do what we can to prevent it," he said. But he added: "It's important for us to act on occasion in order to make sure that the American people are protected."

Obama will meet with world leaders at the Group of Seven summit for the next two days, before stopping in Hiroshima on his way home.

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Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Ise, Japan and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.