Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Obama on Tuesday to pay their respects at the site of the surprise Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor over 75 years ago that drew the United States into World War II.
Prime Minister Abe visited the memorial above the sunken USS Arizona with Mr. Obama, a historic first for a sitting Japanese leader. During his stay, he gave no apology for Japan's surprise attack against the US, but did give his condolences to the families of the 2,403 Americans who died on Dec. 7, 1941.
The visit comes seven months after Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan at the end of the war. Abe's parallel visit marks a bookend of sorts for the conflict, acknowledging terrible acts committed by both sides at the start and at the end of the conflict that had gone largely gone unspoken for decades. Abe also held up the US-Japanese alliance as an example of how even the most committed enemies can become friends through hard work and diplomacy.
During the Pearl Harbor visit, Abe and Obama participated in a wreath-laying ceremony above the USS Arizona. In a speech following the ceremony, Abe called the site a sacred place.
"As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place," Abe said later at nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, according to the Associated Press.
The Prime Minister also reaffirmed Japan's commitment to peace in the speech.
Since the end of Word War II, US economic and military assistance helped Japan's economy blossom over the past several decades. Despite the bitter enmity between the two countries during the war itself, Japan is now considered to be America's closest ally in Asia. But over the past few years, that region has become increasingly unstable, in part due to increased Chinese aggression and interest in disputed islands held by Japan. As the Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi previously reported:
Demonstrating the power of reconciliation can be an important example for other relationships, some diplomatic experts say. The progress of the US-Japan relationship shows it can only happen after leaders and the people behind them grasp how reconciliation is not simply a nicety but crucially in their self-interest....
“Abe’s plan and policy is to ensure that as much as he can personally, he closes the book on World War II – because Japan faces a worrisome future in a very unstable region,” says Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “By visiting Pearl Harbor I think he’s saying, ‘We no longer shirk responsibility for the past, but we do so in part because we’re concerned about preserving this unique relationship [with the US] to deal with our current challenges.’ ”
Like Obama during his visit to Hiroshima, Abe chose not to apologize outright for the attack, as expected. While some have criticized the lack of apology between the two sides, others are willing to let the past remain in the past.
Alfred Rodrigues, a US Navy veteran who survived the attack, told the AP that "War is war," and that he had no hard feelings about the attack.
"They were doing what they were supposed to do, and we were doing what we were supposed to do," Mr. Rodrigues said before Abe's visit.
The Japanese PM's visit likely angered several hard-line members of Abe's right-wing government who support restoring Japan's imperialist past and rebuilding Japan's military. But while Abe has variously supported these views in the past, his comments during the Pearl Harbor visit seemed to support a more pacifistic view of Japan's future.
"We must never repeat the horrors of war again, this is the solemn vow the people of Japan have taken," Abe said after the wreath-laying ceremony.