HONOLULU – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Hawaii Monday morning local time for a two-day visit that appears to be as much about shoring up his credentials as a statesman and trying to address concerns about the future of U.S.-Japan relations under Donald Trump as it is about remembering the past.
The trip, announced just three weeks ago, includes a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial with President Barack Obama, making Abe the first Japanese leader to visit the memorial to the battleship that was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, and has become the universal symbol of the Japanese attack.
Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida visited Pearl Harbor in 1951, before the memorial site was built.
Two other postwar prime ministers, Ichiro Hatoyama and Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, visited the U.S. Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor in the 1950s, the Japanese government has confirmed.
The Pearl Harbor visit comes seven months after Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to go to Hiroshima. Obama did not apologize for the dropping of the atomic bomb despite calls to do so. Likewise, the Abe administration emphasized that, despite calls among U.S. veterans groups to offer an official apology for the Pearl Harbor attack, there will be none.
“This visit is an opportunity to remember those who died in war, demonstrate a resolve that the horrors of war must never be repeated, and at the same time send a message about the reconciliation between Japan and the United States,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in early December when the trip was announced.
But Abe’s visit is also about domestic politics and the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship under Trump, who assumes the presidency next month. It comes after a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month that was widely seen as a diplomatic blunder on Abe’s part due to the lack of clear progress in resolving the dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido despite his agreeing to economic assistance for Moscow.
Abe hopes his trip will be seen favorably by Trump and his advisers as they begin to address the U.S.-Japan relationship, especially the military relationship under the Japan-U.S. security treaty. He is likely to go to the U.S. in the weeks following Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, after becoming the first foreign leader to meet Trump following his win in last month’s presidential election.
Touching down Monday morning at Hickam Air Force Base, which Japanese fighter planes strafed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Abe spent the day visiting the cemeteries of U.S. servicemen killed in the Pacific War and Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, as well as a memorial to Japanese students and crew who perished on the Ehime Maru training ship when it sank off Oahu in a collision with a surfacing U.S. sub in 2001.
In the middle of a winter squall producing sudden bursts of showers, Abe laid a wreath at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where over 13,000 soldiers and sailors who died during the Pacific War were laid to rest. Among the more notable names in the cemetery is Ernie Pyle, one of America’s most famous wartime correspondents, who was killed during the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945.
Abe placed a wreath in front of a stone tablet at the base of the staircase to the memorial that reads: “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God.”
“We’ve had a number of Japanese visitors in the past, including the Emperor and Empress,” said Jim Horton, director of the cemetery, who participated in the ceremony with the prime minister. “But it was an honor to welcome Abe. His visit shows how far relations with Japan have come since the end of the war.”
Later, Abe visited the Makiki Japanese Cemetery, where Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the 19th century are buried. There are also 16 Japanese sailors who died here or on warships passing by the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century. The prime minister’s visit follows years of visits by Maritime Self-Defense Force ranks, who drop by the graveyard to pay their respects whenever they are in Honolulu on a port call.
At the memorial for the Ehime Maru, Abe viewed a cenotaph with the names all the victims engraved on it. The vessel sank on Feb. 9, 2001, after being struck from below by the USS Greeneville as it performed a rapid-surfacing drill for civilian guests.
Nine Japanese, including four teenage students from Uwajima Fisheries High School, run by the Ehime Prefectural Government, died in the accident. Twenty-six others were rescued.
Abe also stopped by a memorial dedicated to Lt. Fusata Iida, who crashed his airplane on a hillside during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack in what Americans later called Japan’s first kamikaze suicide attack of the war. At the Iida memorial, Abe laid flowers and observed a moment of silence.
Abe’s final visit of the day, before a dinner in the evening hosted by Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, was to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), where he toured the facility and observed their work.
The DPAA tracks and attempts to identify, often through DNA analysis and forensic evidence, the remains of former prisoners of war or those missing in action.
The U.S. and Japan are reportedly ready to cooperate on collecting the remains of war dead in the Asia-Pacific region, in the hope of speeding up the process of confirming their identities via DPAA analysis.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada are accompanying Abe on his trip, which is to conclude Tuesday after a last meeting with Obama and their joint visit to the USS Arizona Memorial.