Japan marks Hiroshima anniversary, invites leaders

TOKYO - Japan marked the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on Wednesday, with the city's mayor inviting world leaders to see atomic bomb-scarred cities firsthand to be convinced that nuclear weapons should not exist.

Speaking before a crowd of survivors, their descendants and dignitaries including U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, the mayor urged U.S. President Barack Obama and others to visit, referring to a proposal made at a ministerial meeting in April of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima

"President Obama and all leaders of nuclear-armed nations, please respond to that call by visiting the A-bombed cities as soon as possible to see what happened with your own eyes," Mayor Kazumi Matsui said. "If you do, you will be convinced that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil that must no longer be allowed to exist."

About 45,000 people stood for a minute of silence at the ceremony in Hiroshima's peace park near the epicenter of the 1945 bombing that killed up to 140,000 people. The bombing of Nagasaki three days later killed another 70,000, prompting Japan's surrender in World War II.

The number of surviving victims, known as "hibakusha," was just more than 190,000 this year. Their average age is 79, and many of the attendants at the ceremony were their younger relatives and descendants. Hiroshima officials said 5,507 survivors died over the past year.

The anniversary comes as Japan is divided over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent Cabinet decision to allow the country's military to defend foreign countries and play greater roles overseas. To achieve the goal, Abe's Cabinet revised its interpretation of Japan's post-WWII pacifist constitution.

Abe said at the event that as the sole country to suffer nuclear attacks, Japan has the duty to seek to eliminate nuclear weapons. But he did not mention his push for a more assertive defence posture.

Public polls show more than half of the Japanese are opposed to the decision, mainly because of sensitivity over Japan's wartime past.

Matsui did not directly refer to Abe's recent change. But he said the pacifist constitution is what has kept Japan out of war for 69 years.