On December 8th, 1941, the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his famous address to a joint session of Congress, asking them to declare war on Japan and entering the United States into World War II. “Yesterday [was] a date which will live in infamy…” he said. This is a phrase still evoked whenever one refers to Japan’s sudden attack on the United States.
Many foreign dignitaries have addressed joint sessions of congress, as well, and in April 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese head of state to do so. In his address, the Prime Minister intentionally brought up Pearl Harbor in order to emphasize to the fact that Japan and the United States, once enemies, are now “friends bonded in spirit.” This speech, which was well received by most members of Congress, laid the foundations for President Obama’s May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, the site of the first attack by an atomic bomb. This visit in turn helped lead to the surprise announcement on December 5th that Prime Minister Abe would visit Pearl Harbor.
It might also have to do with the discomfort shown by some in U.S. government at the meeting between the Prime Minister and President-elect Donald Trump in November. Prime Minister Abe’s brief, perfunctory meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Peru seemed to confirm the United States’ unease with the Prime Minister’s earlier evening.
In hindsight, it now seems that the two leaders used those few minutes in Lima to confirm their plan to meet in Hawaii. The Prime Minister clearly wants to demonstrate Japan-U.S. reconciliation one last time with President Obama. It also serves as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance for China, Russia, and the Koreas.
However, Prime Minister Abe has emphasized that the goal of this trip is to offer condolences to the dead rather than to apologize, just as President Obama did with his Hiroshima trip. Rightly so. Equating the atomic bomb’s indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and spread of radioactive contamination to a sneak attack on a military installation, though still tragic, would be nothing less than an affront to history.