The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Jon Roos, will attend the Aug. 6 ceremony in Hiroshima marking the 65th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the city. It is the first time a U.S. official has ever attended the event.
The ambassador will "represent the United States at the August 6 Hiroshima Peace Memorial to express respect for the victims of World War II," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. "At this particular point, we thought it was the right thing to do."
The Japanese government has welcomed the news.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said the Japanese government hopes the occasion would provide the opportunity for the U.S. to deepen its understanding of Japan's pledge to prevent another atomic catastrophe from taking place.
More than 140,000 people were killed instantly in Hiroshima or died in the days and weeks after the U.S. dropped the A-bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later a U.S. military plane dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing more than 70,000 people.
Japan is the only nation to have been attacked with atomic bombs.
Roos is expected to lay a floral wreath at the Hiroshima memorial.
Since the late 1990s Hiroshima city officials have invited all nuclear weapons powers to participate in the annual commemoration. While Russia, China, India and Pakistan have done so, the U.S., Britain and France have not.
However this year both France and the United Kingdom have announced they too will send members of their embassies to the event.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also attend the ceremony this week, becoming the first chief of the world body to do so. The secretary-general also plans to visit the memorial for Korean atomic bomb victims in Nagasaki.
UN officials say they hope the secretary-general's visit will draw attention to the urgent need to achieve global nuclear disarmament.
In the 65 years since the bombs were dropped, no U.S. president has ever visited Hiroshima. President Jimmy Carter did, but only after his term as president had ended.
Last November while President Obama was visiting Japan, a television reporter in Tokyo confronted him about the issue during a joint press conference with then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
The reporter asked Obama if he would visit the two cities, adding, "What is your understanding of the historical meaning of the A-bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Do you think it was the right decision?"
Obama did not entirely answer the question but replied, "Obviously Japan has a unique perspective on the issue of nuclear weapons as a consequence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." He said, "I certainly would be honored, it would be meaningful for me to visit those two cities in the future."
Scholars and others have debated weather the U.S. decision to drop the A-bombs was justified and pre-empted a greater loss of life on both sides during World War II.
Many contend the bombings were an immoral act, a major war crime, and unnecessary to end the war. Many hope this year's commemoration in Japan, with representation from the allied powers of that war, will demonstrate an important shift toward eradicating nuclear weapons.
They point to President Obama's 2009 speech in Prague where he called for a nuclear-free world. The speech was widely welcomed by the public around the globe.
Photo: Hiroshima's Genbaku Dome, the only structure left standing in the city after the atom bomb hit, is now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. http://www.flickr.com/photos/twicepix/4134181736/ cc 2.0