The Group of Seven leaders on Friday made an unprecedented joint visit to a museum in Hiroshima documenting the devastation caused by a U.S. atomic bomb in 1945, signaling at the outset of their three-day summit their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.
The visit by the leaders, including those from nuclear powers the United States, France and Britain, was a long-awaited event for atomic bomb survivors who hope that getting to know the consequences of a nuclear attack will add fresh impetus to stalled efforts to abolish nuclear arms.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is chairing the summit and represents a Hiroshima constituency, has set nuclear disarmament as a key agenda item at a time when the risks of nuclear weapons use remain high amid Russia's nuclear blackmail in its war in Ukraine and China's rapid nuclear forces buildup.
"We felt the reality of the atomic bombing and shared a sobering moment that will be etched in our hearts," Kishida told reporters later. "It was historic from the viewpoint of showing our resolve for a world free of nuclear weapons."
On a rainy morning, Kishida and his wife Yuko greeted his G-7 counterparts as they arrived one by one at the city's Peace Memorial Park by car and walked along a red carpet to enter the nearby Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, with some accompanied by their spouses.
U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden were the last to enter the museum building, which displays artifacts from the atomic bomb victims and survivors. The Kishidas walked along with the American couple, clad respectively in a dark suit and dark dress.
Inside the museum, Kishida explained the exhibits to his G-7 counterparts and they listened to the stories of 85-year-old atomic bomb survivor Keiko Ogura, according to the Japanese government. Ogura is one of the few survivors, known as hibakusha in Japan, who can speak in English.
Biden is the second U.S. sitting president to set foot in Hiroshima. Barack Obama was the first to do so in 2016, after attending a G-7 summit in central Japan, but such high-profile visits have been sensitive in the United States where many believe the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan were necessary to end World War II quickly.
French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were making the first ever visits to Hiroshima by incumbent leaders of their nations.
Possibly reflecting the controversial nature of the issue, the media was not allowed to follow the G-7 leaders inside the museum, and windows were covered so that the interior was not visible from outside.
Takuo Takigawa, the museum's director, also did not disclose details of the visit, but he told a press conference that the leaders were able to appreciate at first hand the scale of destruction of an atomic bomb. "With atomic bomb survivors aging, it was a very significant opportunity to hear directly from them," he said.
The leaders from the G-7, which consists of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus the European Union, spent about 40 minutes inside the museum.
After leaving the museum, the leaders walked to a cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims in the park, and laid floral wreaths.
Through the events at the park, the G-7 "affirmed its commitment toward realizing a world free of nuclear weapons" and reconfirmed its stance that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia is "inadmissible," the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a press release.
Takigawa told the press conference that he wants each of the leaders to "deliver a message of peace."
He voiced his hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also visit the museum amid growing speculation that he will make a trip to Japan to attend the G-7 summit, during which support for Kyiv has also been high on the agenda
All of the G-7 leaders signed the museum's guestbook, according to a Japanese government source.
Posting a photo of the G-7 leaders laying wreaths at the park, Macron tweeted, "Contributing to the duty of memory of the Hiroshima victims. Acting together for peace."
Sunak also tweeted, saying it was "deeply moving to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park which holds such significance."
"This Summit carries the weight of history and it's important that we learn from the past, including from its darkest moments," he added.
The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and a second one on Nagasaki three days later. Around 210,000 people -- mostly civilians -- are estimated to have died as a result of the attacks by the end of 1945. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15 of the same year, bringing an end to World War II.
Japan remains the world's sole country to have suffered atomic bombings. But, while aspiring to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the Asian country, surrounded by China, Russia and North Korea, also relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for protection.
The Hiroshima museum holds about 100,000 relics, photos and other items in its collection, including burnt and tattered clothing, charred lunch boxes and human hair that fell out due to radiation exposure. Some 500 items are on display in the main building, which focuses on conveying the horror of the attack.
A diplomatic source said the G-7 leaders saw some of the permanent exhibitions in the main building, which included photos capturing the destruction in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb.
In 2016, Kishida, then foreign minister, hosted G-7 foreign ministerial talks in Hiroshima, and took his counterparts to the museum. They also laid wreaths at the park's cenotaph.
But there had been no instances in which G-7 leaders have visited the museum together.
In 2016, Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his stated intention to seek a world without nuclear weapons, delivered a speech at the park and met with representatives of atomic bomb survivors.
He also visited the museum, but only viewed some symbolic exhibits that were brought to the lobby, with his stay lasting for about 10 minutes. Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.