Seventy-five years after a Japanese admiral led the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, the mayor of his hometown joined his Honolulu counterpart to mark the anniversary — as friends.
Nagaoka Mayor Tatsunobu Isoda lay flowers at the main memorial event Wednesday and was to join a smaller ceremony Thursday co-organized by Japan and the U.S. for the first time.
His presence is the fruit of nearly a decade of effort by his predecessor, Tamio Mori, who in 2014 became the first Japanese municipal leader invited to the commemoration in Hawaii.
“To many Americans, Pearl Harbor was a sacred place for the survivors and their animosity, and a place to glorify the war dead,” said Nagaoka official Yusuke Nishiyama, who has organized peace education and youth exchange programs with Honolulu for several years.
Nagaoka, a city of 270,000 people in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, is the hometown of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the naval commander who masterminded the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that killed 2,400 sailors, marines and soldiers.
Mori reached out to then-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann at an international conference in the Hawaiian capital in 2007.
Introducing himself as the head of Yamamoto’s hometown, he proposed youth exchanges for peace education to restore friendship.
It took five years for Nagaoka and Honolulu to become sister cities, and even longer to build a deeper trust.
“We continued our exchanges, not just on milestone anniversaries but year after year, and it was last year when we finally heard the word ‘reconciliation’ mentioned (by the Americans) for the first time,” said Nishiyama, the Nagaoka official.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced this week that he will visit Pearl Harbor with President Barack Obama in late December to pay respects to the war dead as a gesture of reconciliation.
Nagaoka is famed for its fireworks, and displays of them in Hawaii have become a symbolic part of the exchange, including one at the ceremony last year marking the 70th anniversary of the end World War II.
In Nagaoka, the fireworks have long served as a reminder of the more than 1,400 people who died in U.S. aerial firebombing attacks on the city during the final weeks of the war.
The city’s residents can take some solace in knowing that although Yamamoto was behind the Pearl Harbor attack, he initially opposed waging war on America because he thought Japan had little chance of winning. He died in 1943 when his plane was shot down by U.S. forces.