HIROSHIMA, Japan — Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday attended a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima for victims of the US atomic bombing 71 years ago, becoming the highest-ranking US administration official to visit the site of one of the most destructive acts of World War II.
Kerry was flanked by Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, a Hiroshima native, and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond of Britain. They were joined by the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the European Union.
The visit is likely to intensify speculation about whether President Obama will go to Hiroshima during a planned trip to Japan next month. Obama would be the first sitting US president to visit the city, a decision that would resonate deeply in Japan but would be controversial at home.
“Everyone should visit Hiroshima, and everyone means everyone,” Kerry said at a news conference Monday in response to a question about whether Obama would go. He said that the president had been invited by Japanese officials and that he would like to visit someday, but Kerry added: “Whether or not he can come as president, I don’t know.”
Kerry spoke after he and other leading diplomats from the Group of Seven industrialized countries toured Hiroshima’s atomic bomb museum and laid flowers at a cenotaph in its Peace Memorial Park.
They also examined the former exhibition hall that stood directly under the atomic blast and has been preserved as a skeletal monument. Kerry called the experience “stunning” and “gut-wrenching.”
Kerry and the other officials were in the city for talks ahead of the annual G-7 summit meeting next month, to be hosted by Japan.
The question of how to acknowledge the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and another on the city of Nagasaki three days later, has long troubled US diplomats. The bombings ultimately killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, in a country that after the war was transformed from an enemy of the United States into one of its closest allies.
But a majority of Americans have long believed that the bombings were necessary to force Japan’s surrender and to spare American lives. Any hint that the United States was apologizing could prove to be highly damaging politically. For decades, US ambassadors to Japan avoided the somber annual ceremonies commemorating the bombings each August.
Japan has never demanded that the United States apologize for the bombings, and Kerry did not do so Monday. Still, the Japanese foreign minister called the visit by Kerry and other G-7 officials “a historic day.”
“I want to deliver a strong and clear message of peace from Hiroshima to the world,” Kishida said.
Kerry’s participation in the ceremony threatened to overshadow the two-day G-7 meeting of foreign ministers. They discussed terrorism, the refugee crisis in Europe, North Korea’s nuclear program, other disarmament issues, and maritime security threats in Asia.
Without naming China, the ministers criticized Beijing’s assertive claims in the East and South China Seas, condemning what they called “intimidating, coercive, or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”
Similar language has appeared in the communiqués issued by Western officials before, but it has done little to stop China from moves such as building artificial islands in disputed waters and dispatching its coast guard into areas claimed by its neighbors.
Plans for Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima had increased speculation that Obama could make history next month by going to the city during the summit meeting in Ise-Shima, about 250 miles to the east.
Former president Jimmy Carter toured the atom bomb memorial in 1984, four years after he left office, and Nancy Pelosi visited in 2008 when she was speaker of the House of Representatives. But no serving administration official of Cabinet rank or higher has visited.
In 2009, Obama opened his presidency with an idealistic speech in Prague declaring his commitment to creating “a world without nuclear weapons.” Putting that sentiment into practice has proved to be difficult, however, and some see a visit to Hiroshima, in his last year in office, as a way of breathing life into the effort.
Obama has already changed the US approach to recognizing its nuclear attacks on Japan. In 2010, John V. Roos, the ambassador at the time, attended the August commemoration in Hiroshima, becoming the first US ambassador to do so. His successor, Caroline Kennedy, has also attended.