HIROSHIMA — Tens of thousands of people gathered in Hiroshima on Thursday to mark 70 years since the atomic bombing that helped end World War II but still divides opinion today over whether the total destruction it caused was justified.
Bells tolled as a solemn crowd observed a moment of silence at 8:15 am local time, when the detonation turned the western Japanese city into an inferno, killing thousands instantly and leaving others to die a slow death with horrible injuries.
Children, elderly survivors and delegates representing 100 countries were in attendance with many placing flowers in front of the cenotaph at Peace Memorial Park in downtown Hiroshima.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US ambassador Caroline Kennedy, and under-secretary for arms control Rose Gottemoeller, the most senior Washington official ever sent to the service, were in attendance.
"As the only country ever attacked by an atomic bomb... we have a mission to create a world without nuclear arms," Abe told the crowd.
"We have been tasked with conveying the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, across generations and borders."
The premier said his country would submit a fresh resolution to abolish nuclear weapons at the UN general assembly later this year.
This year's memorial comes just days ahead of the scheduled restart of a nuclear reactor in southern Japan – the first one to go back on line after two years of complete hiatus following the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima in 2011.
While Abe's government has pushed to switch reactors back on, public opposition to atomic power remains high after Fukushima, the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
On Thursday, Hiroshima's mayor Kazumi Matsui said nuclear weapons were an "absolute evil," as he urged the world to put an end to them forever.
"Now is the time to start taking action," Matsui said.
An American B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped a bomb, dubbed "Little Boy," on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Nearly everything around it was incinerated, with the ground level hit by a wall of heat up to 4,000 degrees Celsius – hot enough to melt steel.
About 140,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the attack, including those who survived the bombing itself but died in the following days, weeks and months.
On August 9, the port city of Nagasaki was also attacked with an atomic bomb, killing more than 70,000 people.
Japan surrendered days later – on August 15, 1945 – bringing the war to a close.
Opinion remains divided over whether the twin attacks were justified.
While some historians say that they prevented many more casualties in a planned land invasion, critics counter that the attacks were not necessary to end the war, arguing that Japan was already heading for imminent defeat. — AFP