National

Akie Abe prays at Pearl Harbor, fueling speculation Japan's prime minister will follow suit

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Known for making free-thinking comments and actions that are politically awkward for her husband, Akie Abe has done it again.

The wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a surprise visit Sunday to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, a venue that no Japanese prime minister has visited, least of all Abe.

Critics see the conservative leader as maintaining a revisionist view on Japan’s actions in World War II, but his wife’s gesture has left many wondering if Shinzo Abe will pay his respects at the site later this year.

In a post on Facebook, the first lady said she visited the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu Island. Her two-hour visit included saying a prayer and laying flowers.

She posted several pictures, including one of a handshake with a veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor.

Hundreds of Japanese fighter planes struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, an unannounced attack that led the U.S. to declare war on Japan.

On Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Akie Abe was acting in a private capacity before attending a forum on maritime environment in Hawaii. Suga said the visit has no bearing on whether the prime minister will visit the memorial.

“Her visit there was a personal one, and the government won’t comment on this,” Suga said.

There is speculation that Shinzo Abe may head to Pearl Harbor on the anniversary of the attack this year. In May, the Nikkei financial newspaper reported that he would do so to reciprocate the historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Hiroshima.

The White House has said it would welcome such a visit, but speaking at a joint news conference with Obama ahead of the Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit in May, Abe said there were no plans at that point in time.

Akie Abe’s underlying intentions for her visit to the memorial are unknown. Yet speaking afterward to online news service Gendai Ismedia, she said she hopes Japan remains at peace.

“I offered my condolences to the victims and gave my prayer of gratitude for the peace that we have enjoyed and to establish the peace going forward,” she said.

Gendai Ismedia also reported that Abe visited the site at 7:55 a.m., the exact time that the attack took place in 1941.

In the interview, she also referred to Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, saying it gave people an opportunity to think about the atomic bombing and the war.

“I understand that there are various debates and stances on Pearl Harbor, but I think that we have to pass on the memory to the next generation, transcending the feelings of hate and anger,” she said.

Some critics see Akie Abe acting as a counterbalance to her conservative husband, serving as a kind of opposition camp within the Abe household.

She has said she opposes her husband’s core agendas such as raising the consumption tax and promoting nuclear energy, as well as his stance over a contentious U.S. base in Okinawa.

She even makes friends with her husband’s opponents. After the Upper House election last month, she went drinking with Yohei Miyake, an opposition camp candidate who went down to defeat. Over the drinks, she dialed her husband on her smartphone and handed it to Miyake.

Days after the bonding session, the first lady made a surprise visit to Takae, Okinawa Prefecture, with Miyake, where the government has resumed helipad construction amid fierce protests.

But some conservative instincts persist. Last year she paid a visit to contentious Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

The Shinto facility is often regarded as a symbol of Japan’s militarism before and during World War II. Visits by top politicians, in particular prime ministers, draw intense criticism from China and South Korea.