Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 31 to attend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. (Pool)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will become the first Japanese leader ever to attend the review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 

That distinction holds special meaning for Kishida, who was elected in Hiroshima--the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack.

Despite advice to the contrary from his own aides citing the political risk, Kishida has aspired to attend the conference since he took office last October, according to sources close to the prime minister.

“I plan to go there, so keep my schedule open,” he told his staff.

The NPT meeting opens on Aug. 1 at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Kishida is expected to announce the creation of a special fund to raise global awareness of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fund would help bring people overseas to the two cities so they can learn more about the horrors of nuclear warfare and its aftermath.

Japanese prime ministers have never attended the conference, which is a ministerial-level meeting.

When some in his office objected to the notion, Kishida held firm, sources said.

“I will go,” he insisted.

Kishida wants to see “a world without nuclear weapons” and has shown a strong desire to be present at the conference, sources said.

“The NPT meeting is the only gathering that brings both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states to the same table,” Kishida said. “The key will be how to persuade the nuclear powers.”

His resolve to attend has only strengthened since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to sources.

The sources said Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons has made him keenly aware that nothing will change unless nuclear weapon-armed states are willing to change.

That, despite that the prime minister had a bitter experience at the NPT review conference in 2015, when he attended it as the first foreign minister to do so in a decade.

He called on countries to strengthen their efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, but the final document summarizing the achievements of the discussions was not adopted as deep divisions emerged between the nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers.

But in other arenas on this front, Japan has been notably absent.

In 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted at the initiative of some non-nuclear weapon states dissatisfied at the lack of progress toward nuclear disarmament.

Japan has not ratified the TPNW and conspicuously did not attend the first meeting of the state parties for the TPNW in June as an observer.

Japan is surrounded by nuclear powers--China, Russia and North Korea--and is protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Non-nuclear weapon states, NGOs, atomic bomb survivors in Japan and local leaders from the cities that were bombed have criticized the prime minister for keeping his distance from the treaty.

“What is important is how to connect reality and ideals,” Kishida said. “Criticizing the ideal from the perspective of reality or criticizing reality from the perspective of the ideal will lead to no progress.”

Kishida has insisted joining the TPNW would be meaningless without the nuclear power states involved in the discussions, and has instead turned his attention to the prospect of making achievements through the NPT meeting where the nuclear powers will be present.

But while Kishida prides himself on serving as a bridge between nuclear and non-nuclear powers, there is no easy path forward.

An observer noted that amid the current international turmoil, with Russia continuing its nuclear threats as it wages war against Ukraine and China working against nuclear disarmament, it is unclear whether Japan will be able to engage with them in disarmament discussions.

Some officials in the Kishida administration questioned whether the prime minister should participate in a meeting unlikely to produce tangible outcomes.

Kishida countered that if he does not attend, there would be little hope for progress in disarmament talks.

“We have to do everything possible,” he said. “We must reverse the current momentum.”

Kishida hopes to eventually turn this meeting into a subject at the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima in May next year.

In late November, Kishida plans to hold an international conference of eminent persons to discuss living in a world without nuclear weapons. He hopes to promote discussions on nuclear disarmament, inviting current and former world leaders from both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states.

Kishida has named former President Barack Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, as a participant.

The prime minister told members of his inner circle that “future conferences will depend on outcomes from the NPT meeting.”