At center of Obama-Abe Pearl Harbor meeting: the power of reconciliation

Though Japan and the US have been solid allies for decades, they remained divided about the tragedies of the beginning and the end of World War II.

Bruce Asato /The Star-Advertiser/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu to place a wreath on Monday.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would visit Pearl Harbor, meeting President Obama in Hawaii Tuesday, it was noteworthy that both leaders characterized the visit as an opportunity for reconciliation.

The United States and Japan, after all, would seem to have reconciled long ago. The two nations have made peace and become close allies since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima four years later.

But the two leaders' message is clear. What the Obama-Abe visit will demonstrate is that reconciliation is not a one-and-done, but is a perpetual work in progress between onetime adversaries – even after decades of close relations. Coming seven months after Mr. Obama’s groundbreaking visit to Hiroshima, Mr. Abe’s Pearl Harbor trip is yet another step beyond a declaration made decades ago.

“To some extent, these two events … are the last remaining hurdles in the process of reconciliation,” says James Schoff, a senior fellow and expert in US-Japan relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “This is taking us a greater distance down this road – and it’s a long road.”

The benefits of reconciliation

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, some experts say.

That motivation may help explain Abe’s initiative to visit Pearl Harbor, where a surprise Japanese attack killed more than 2,400 American service members and civilians. It was originally announced that he would be the first sitting Japanese leader to visit the site, but as many as three Japanese prime ministers apparently visited Pearl Harbor with less fanfare in the 1950s. Abe is the first to visit with a US president.

“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.’ ”

Abe isn’t taking the first step in what might be considered the ultimate US-Japan reconciliation dance. In May, Obama became the first American president to visit Hiroshima, the Japanese city where the US first used the atomic bomb. (The second and last time was three days later on the city of Nagasaki, forcing Japan’s surrender.)

Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor “makes a fitting counterpoint to [Obama’s Hiroshima] trip, marking the alpha and omega of World War II in the Pacific,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow in Northeast Asian issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

By commemorating the two terrible events that opened and closed the horrendous Second World War between their countries, the two leaders are underscoring how the US and Japan have been able to “overcome the animosity of conflict to become enduring partners and allies,” Mr. Klingner wrote in a recent commentary on the Heritage website.

Coming to terms with their intertwined history and onetime adversarial past has allowed the two countries to build a partnership that is now a “symbol of what democracies can achieve together,” he says.

That the two leaders are only now visiting the two iconic sites offers some measure of how fraught such symbolic gestures can be.

First, the US had some misgivings about an Abe visit to Pearl Harbor so soon after Obama’s trip to Hiroshima because there were concerns it would look like a “quid pro quo,” Mr. Schoff says – or that it would establish some unwanted equivalency between the two events.

“Even though the US and Japan have been solid allies for more than a half century, the two sides have remained divided about the tragedies of the beginning and the end of the war,” says Dr. Auslin. “They may never see fully eye-to-eye on the two events, but with these two visits together they are putting aside whatever differences remain to focus on how much stronger the two countries are together.”

A message beyond America

Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor is particularly important as a “message” not just to Americans but to Japan’s neighbors – chief among them South Korea – who were the victims of imperial Japan’s violent expansion across the region, says Auslin, author of “The End of the Asian Century.”

Abe has made reconciliation with South Korea a goal of his tenure. A year ago, the Japanese leader and South Korean President Park Geun-hye sealed an agreement that begins to address the wrenching issues left by Japan’s more than three decades of occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Part of that agreement was reparations for “comfort women” the Japanese military seized during occupation – a couple hundred of  whom remain alive today. Several of Abe’s predecessors considered the issue settled and behind the two countries, but clearly South Korea did not.

By going further than previous Japanese leaders, Abe was not just acknowledging past mistakes but recognizing the overriding interest both countries have in getting beyond their past, Auslin says.

But some say Japan and its neighbors – particularly South Korea and China – have much further to go on the path to reconciliation.

“If anything, I’d say the whole question of Japan’s occupation and wartime activities has become a bigger issue as these Asian countries have grown and prospered,” says Schoff. “Their rising status has made them much more vocal on these issues.“

Perhaps the crucial factor that sets the US-Japan reconciliation apart, Schoff says, is that, during the “process” of walking the path together, the two countries have become friends.

“When they begin to express sympathy for each other’s misfortune, that’s when you see that there’s an element of understanding that has been picked up on this path of reconciliation,” he says.

Referring to Abe’s statement that he hoped to send “messages” with his Pearl Harbor visit, Schoff says, “There’s a message of friendship in these expressions of sympathy and understanding.”

[Editor's note: The article has been corrected to note that Abe is not the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor.]

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