In Pearl Harbor Visit, a Symbol of Reconciliation in Japan
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 to visit 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 Abe can make the trip to the memorial, accompanied by President Barack Obama, to offer condolences to the victims.
Japan has struggled to reckon with its wartime history, and the Pearl Harbor attack has been cast as a tragic but inevitable response to a U.S.-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, protests from Japan’s nationalist right wing prompted him to alter his plans.
But after Abe, who is a conservative politician with strong ties to nationalist groups, announced his plans, the reception in Japan was largely positive.
“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.”
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 before the U.S. presidential election, Donald 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. When Obama made a visit to Hiroshima in May, 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.”
Abe is not expected to apologize for the attacks, much as Obama did not apologize for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Instead, Abe will most likely repeat the repentance and condolences he offered in April 2015 when he addressed Congress.