In Pearl Harbor Visit, a Symbol of Reconciliation in Japan

By Motoko Rich and Gardiner Harris – December 24, 2016

The New York Times

TOKYO — As recently as five years ago, a Japanese prime minister was in Hawaii for an economic summit meeting, but pointedly stayed away from Pearl Harbor.

In the coming week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will fly to Hawaii for the express purpose of visiting the site of the surprise attack on a United States naval base 75 years ago that killed 2,400 Americans and drew the country into World War II.

It is a sign of how far public opinion in Japan has moved that Mr. Abe can make the trip to the memorial, accompanied by President Obama, to offer condolences to the victims.

For decades, Japan has struggled to reckon with its wartime history, and the Pearl Harbor attack has been cast as a tragic but inevitable response to an American-led oil embargo that would have devastated the Japanese imperial empire.

Because of domestic political opposition, it has been all but impossible for Japanese leaders to visit Pearl Harbor until now. In 1994, when Emperor Akihito tried to visit the memorial, atop the remains of the U.S.S. Arizona, the American battleship on which the worst losses occurred, protests from Japan’s nationalist right wing prompted him to alter his plans.

But after Mr. Abe, who is a conservative politician with strong ties to nationalist groups, announced his plans this month, the reception in Japan was largely positive.

Even the far-right Sankei newspaper — though grumbling that Mr. Abe should first revisit Yasukuni, a shrine in Tokyo where war criminals are enshrined — described Mr. Abe’s trip to Hawaii as “an opportunity to refresh a commitment to deepen the U.S.-Japan friendship and contribute peace to the world through a tranquil ceremony.”

Some Japanese news media suggested that the Pearl Harbor trip could even lift Mr. Abe’s approval ratings and give him the confidence to call an election in January.

The Japanese public is also aware of the importance of a symbolic visit to Pearl Harbor at a time of uncertainty in its country’s relationship with the United States.

Although the premier’s visit to Pearl Harbor was in the planning stages even before the American presidential election, Donald J. Trump’s win scared Japanese leaders because he had spent time on the campaign trail castigating Japan for not paying enough for its own defense. And when Mr. Obama made a visit to Hiroshima in May, Mr. Trump posted on Twitter: “Does President Obama ever discuss the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while he’s in Japan? Thousands of American lives lost.”

Mr. Abe is not the first sitting prime minister to visit the Pearl Harbor memorial (Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida apparently visited the memorial during a stop in Hawaii in 1951), but he will be the first to participate in a public ceremony there.

He is not expected to apologize for the attacks, much as Mr. Obama did not apologize for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Instead, Mr. Abe will most likely repeat the repentance and condolences he offered in April 2015 when he addressed Congress.

Although it was 75 years in the making, Mr. Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor is in some ways the easiest gesture of reconciliation that Japan could make as it confronts its wartime past.

Asia has long been plagued by an inability among the war’s combatants to move beyond its events and enmities. South Korea and China remain angered by what they see as Japanese efforts to ignore or sugarcoat atrocities. By contrast, the relationship between Japan and the United States long ago overcame such difficulties.

“I think that’s because the United States was a good winner and Japan was a good loser,” said Tamaki Tsukada, a spokesman at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. “The United States was magnanimous after defeating Japan. It did not impose harsh terms. If anything, the U.S. provided very generous support, humanitarian and economic.” The Japanese accepted the American postwar occupation peacefully.

Even in the United States, where “Remember Pearl Harbor” was once a rallying cry, the sense of outrage about what was viewed as a sneaky and disreputable attack has largely dissipated, said Daniel Martinez, the chief historian at the Pearl Harbor memorial. Part of that is time, and also sympathetic popular culture portrayals of Japanese attackers in movies like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Pearl Harbor,” Mr. Martinez said.

“I never hated the Japanese, and I don’t need an apology,” said Stu Hedley, 95, who was a seaman on the battleship West Virginia, which settled to the bottom of the harbor after the attack. “I welcome this visit.”

In Japan, Pearl Harbor is often defined as one bookend of a war that ended with the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which some Japanese see as morally absolving the country of its aggression.

Guidelines from the Ministry of Education for teaching history stipulate that students learn that “Japan caused tremendous damage to many countries, especially in Asia, and that Japan also suffered unprecedented damages in the Tokyo air raids, the Battle of Okinawa and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

While most Japanese students visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki at least once during their school years, Pearl Harbor merits just one or two lines in most textbooks.

“The younger generation knows the term Pearl Harbor, but they don’t know much about it,” said Katsutoshi Chujo, a middle school history teacher near Tokyo. “Most young people don’t know much about the war. They know about Japan as a victim in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Tokyo air raids.”

Several textbooks used in public schools describe it as a surprise attack on the United States that followed a long campaign in China. But a textbook that takes a more nationalist view and that has been approved by the Education Ministry portrays the attacks as being forced by American demands and describes Japan as waging a war of “self-defense.”

Some historians worry that Mr. Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor will forestall broader atonement for Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia. “By commemorating Pearl Harbor, if the whole society marginalizes the whole process that led to Pearl Harbor, that commemoration becomes an act of forgetting as well,” said Yujin Yaguchi, a professor of American studies at the University of Tokyo.

In the complex and highly choreographed world of war memory, scholars say, Mr. Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor is an important, if early, step.

“There is a chronology to public memory,” said Carol Gluck, a professor of history at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. “Everybody doesn’t remember what they ought to remember in some abstract moral calculus. It’s very political, and the domestic political calculus comes first.”

With some on the left in Japan calling for Mr. Abe to visit important war memorials in South Korea or China, analysts say political leaders need to build trust and share broader strategic goals before such symbolic gestures can take place. While Japan has a strong alliance with the United States, it does not share that kind of trust with China, and its relationship with South Korea is still shaky.

“These visits don’t cause reconciliation,” said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of “Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics.” “It’s the exact opposite. Reconciliation causes these visits.”

Read the article in the New York Times.