Japanese newspapers and activists are calling for Barack Obama to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the only two cities ever devastated by atomic bombs, ahead of his visit to Japan next month.
The two cities' mayors formally invited Obama on Tuesday to visit sometime before next May, but U.S. officials say it is highly unlikely he will travel to either city during his Nov. 12-13 visit to Tokyo.
An April speech Obama gave in Prague calling for a world free of nuclear weapons raised expectations, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month heightened them further.
"Many of the past Nobel Peace Laureates have visited ground zero," the Hiroshima-based Chugoku newspaper said in an editorial. "We urge him to go and see the place himself and renew his commitment to a nuclear-free world."
The U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, killing an estimated 140,000 people, and a second one on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, killing 80,000. Six days later, Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
A visit could be politically fraught for any American president, and experts don't expect one soon. Still, Japanese newspapers have published editorials, community groups have circulated petitions and students have written letters urging Obama to visit.
On Tuesday, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki went to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to invite Obama to their cities before a U.N. review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next May.
Fashion designer Issey Miyake, in a July opinion piece in The New York Times, revealed he is a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and called on Obama to visit the city.
Another survivor, 84-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, said he would love to have the U.S. president visit. He was 20 when he was caught in the flash of the bomb's explosion above Hiroshima. His body was covered with burns, and it took him a year to walk again.
"A lot has happened between our countries, but we've overcome this," said Tsuboi, who is co-chair of a nationwide organization for atomic bomb survivors. "We don't want to look to the past; we want to look to the future. We want to join with President Obama to create a peaceful world."
Analysts note that Obama has his hands full with the war in Afghanistan and health care reform. A visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki could expose him to a new line of attack from opposition Republicans, who might accuse him of second-guessing the decision to drop the bombs.
Signs of sympathy toward Japanese suffering could be seen as criticism of the decision, which many Americans view as a pragmatic one that hastened the end of the war that America entered after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
"He can't be seen as denigrating the good fight," said James Orr, chairman of the East Asian Studies Department at Bucknell University. "He would have to be very careful that he recognize on the U.S. side the value of service to country as well as express sensitivity to the human suffering involved."
Obama also has been low-key about the Nobel Peace Prize and wouldn't want to leave the impression that it is shaping his foreign policy.
Former President Jimmy Carter stopped by the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima in 1984, after he was out of office. The highest-ranking American to visit while in office is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who went last year.
Many Japanese were impressed when new U.S. Ambassador John Roos visited Hiroshima earlier this month, just weeks after he arrived in Tokyo.
Yuji Kanemori, a 17-year-old from Hiroshima, helped form an anti-nuclear student group called "NoNukesHiroshima" that has written letters to Obama. The students are folding 23,000 paper birds _ representing the estimated number of nuclear weapons in the world _ that they hope to deliver to Obama either in Washington or Hiroshima, should he ever visit.
While some debate the historical and moral aspects of the bombing, Kanemori said his group has a simple goal: "We just don't want that ever to be repeated."
Associated Press Writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Ken Guggenheim in Washington contributed to this report.