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‘Apologies Are Over’: Pearl Harbor Changes Views on US-Japan Relations

Jason Morgan, Reitaku University




When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor, Daniel Martinez was his official host and guide. Martinez, the chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, remembers that Abe was particularly impressed by a plaque at the entrance to the museum.


Completely redone in 2010 under Martinez’ direction, the museum now tells the story of Pearl Harbor in the longue duree, and from both the American and Japanese perspectives. The wording is carefully balanced. Prime Minister Abe was struck, Martinez says, by how fairly and dispassionately the exhibit opens and unfolds.


For example, from the plaque titled “A Gathering Storm” which stands outside the entrance to the museum, visitors are presented with an overall “clash of cultures,” Martinez says. Instead of showing the December 1941 bombing raid as a sneak attack, Martinez and his team wanted to portray Japan as having its own “state of mind,” its own reasons and anxieties for undertaking such a momentous plan. Both Japan and the US were “new powers” in 1941, the sign says. Both had their own national interests. Both wanted to avoid war. The parity and balance are revolutionary, especially at the very place where the Pacific War exploded into full view more than 70 years ago.



Instead of showing Pearl Harbor and Midway as a dread leveling of accounts, with one fleet sunk as retribution for another, Martinez shows the naval aspect of the war in a broader context, as the waning of the age of the battleship and the dawn of the age of the aircraft carrier. Arizona and Akagi—the former a battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor; the latter, an aircraft carrier sunk at Midway—are not chess pieces. They are symbols of the changing nature of naval power and the shifting fortunes of different ways of waging war.



Perhaps this is the most indicative of the drive to tell the story of Pearl Harbor from both sides: as visitors wend their way through the museum, they pass towering glass stelae, engraved with the American story on one side, and the Japanese story on the other. It is intentional, Martinez says, that one cannot view one side of the story without seeing the other side coming through. The two sides are different, but they cannot be understood in isolation.


Martinez has been with the National Park Service in Hawai’i since the early 1980s, but his first NPS assignment was on the US mainland, at Little Bighorn. Martinez credits this experience with teaching him the importance of seeing history kaleidoscopically, as a myriad of intersecting stories and perspectives. Guiding visitors through the battlefield where General George Custer and his men were wiped out by Lakota Chief Crazy Horse and his Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in June 1876, Martinez says it was impossible not to approach the events with full respect for their complexity and nuance. Being frank and open about the past, Martinez continues, works powerfully to open up cooperation and partnership into the future. “Perspective breeds dialogue,” Martinez emphasized.



This is the same approach he brings to his work at Pearl Harbor, and it extends far beyond openness to the Japanese part of the historical equation. For Martinez, Pearl Harbor is also about telling the story of the Hawaiian native population—almost always missing from the standard narrative of the US Navy’s exploits in the Pacific.


For instance, Martinez envisions a future story including earlier conquests, such as King Kamehameha the Great’s consolidation of rule over the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He also wants to expand the geography of “Pearl Harbor,” such as by incorporating exhibits about Hanauliuli, a site on Oahu where both Japanese prisoners of war and Japanese-Americans were held in camps during the war.



The Future is Already Underway


Reconciliation seems to work in a chain reaction. From the first visits by Japanese aviators in the 1980s, the efforts to reach out across old divides grew, eventually leading presidents and prime ministers to pay their respects at places once considered politically taboo. In a boomerang effect, these efforts are rebounding into the private sector. Martinez says that Japanese visitors to Pearl Harbor have nearly doubled since Prime Minister Abe’s official visit in 2016.


This is part of a much broader re-evaluation of the Japanese-American alliance, Martinez says. Faced with serious threats in the Asia-Pacific region, both politicians and ordinary citizens now seem to understand that neither Japan nor the United States can afford to keep blaming one another for the tragedies of the past.



“The calamity of war is that you crush a generation,” Martinez said. But the waste and anguish of the 1940s have been changed into mutual appreciation, respect, and goodwill. The trend is getting stronger, and the alliance is deepening. Pearl Harbor, once the symbol of bitter enmity between Japan and the United States, is now, more than anything, a beacon of hope for the future of US-Japan relations.


“The apologies are over,” he said. “The extension of friendship has begun.”



Read also:

Pearl Harbor: War Memorial Transforms Into Vehicle of Reconciliation


Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan. He holds a PhD in Japanese legal history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Asian Studies (China focus) from the University of Hawai’i. He has translated works by Mizoguchi Yuzo, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, and Muro Saisei. In 2014-2015, Morgan was a Fulbright scholar researching Japanese law at Waseda University in Tokyo. His book, Why do Americans Look Down on Japan?, was published with Wani Books in 2016.




Jason Morgan, Ph.D. (History), is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan.