Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned visit to Pearl Harbor late this month — the first by an incumbent leader of Japan — should serve to confirm the reconciliation between World War II enemies that have become close allies over the postwar decades. In paying tribute at the site of the December 1941 Japanese attack that drew the United States into World War II, Abe will be reciprocating Barack Obama’s historic pilgrimage in May to Hiroshima — the first by a sitting American president to the city devastated by the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing. The Dec. 26-27 trip to Hawaii, where Abe plans to hold his last summit with Obama, may also serve to highlight the crucial importance of the bilateral relationship for the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, whose views toward the alliance remain unclear.
But if such a symbolic gesture of reconciliation is to be valued between the two allies today, the Abe administration should also take more proactive steps to achieve full reconciliation with Japan’s East Asian neighbors that suffered from this nation’s wartime aggression and colonial rule — which has apparently not been achieved more than 70 years after the war.
In his surprise announcement Monday, the prime minister said the visit will be aimed at praying for victims of the war on both sides of the Pacific and demonstrating Japan’s resolve never to repeat the tragedy of war. He said his tribute at the Pearl Harbor memorial side by side with Obama will send a message to the world of the value of reconciliation between Japan and the U.S. and the significance of their closer alliance toward the future.
It is believed that past Japanese prime ministers have avoided paying tribute at Pearl Harbor to avert the possibility that such a visit would be interpreted as Japan unilaterally accepting blame for opening the war with the U.S. — much like it was long considered taboo for presidents before Obama to visit Hiroshima out of concern it could be construed as an apology by the U.S. government for the nuclear attack. Abe said he has been weighing his Pearl Harbor visit since Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
Government officials have ruled out an apology by Abe for what is widely perceived in the U.S. as a sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941, local time — which killed more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians and led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to say the date would “live in infamy” — when he pays tribute at the memorial. That should not detract from the significance of his visit — just like the lack of an apology by Obama for the atomic bombing did not undermine the symbolic importance of his visit to Hiroshima.
The sensitivities that surround a Japanese prime minister’s visit to Pearl Harbor — and a U.S. president’s visit to Hiroshima — remind us that reconciliation over the war is still an issue between Japan and the U.S. despite the last seven decades that have seen the former enemies evolve into key allies and economic partners. Abe’s visit will contribute to healing the wounds of the war that still remain, as did Obama’s pilgrimage to the A-bomb memorial.
It will indeed be significant for Abe to express Japan’s resolve never to engage in war at the site of the Japanese attack that began the war with the U.S. 75 years ago. But if that’s the key purpose of his trip to Pearl Harbor, the prime minister should take further steps to also seek Japan’s full reconciliation with its neighbors in Asia, particularly China and South Korea — countries with which issues of wartime aggression and history of colonial rule continue to haunt bilateral ties today.
In his August 2015 statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe said: “We must never again repeat the devastation of war. … Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.
“Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. In order to manifest such feelings through concrete actions, we have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others. … Such a position articulated by the previous Cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.”
Reconciliation over the war should be achieved with all of the parties involved. If Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor matters as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation with the U.S., he should consider similar steps with Japan’s Asian neighbors to put the message in his war anniversary statement into action.
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