Earlier this week, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touched down in Honolulu to conduct his final meeting with US President Barack Obama on the incumbent’s home turf. Abe’s visit was more than a pure courtesy to Obama, with whom he has experienced a productive and cordial, if not warm, relationship with over the past four years. Rather, Abe’s trip was centered on an historic visit to Pearl Harbor – the site of carnage 75 years ago, caused by then-Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on US forces. The attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in destruction of much of the US Pacific fleet and led to the deaths of nearly 2500 US servicemen and civilians. Perhaps more critically, the incident proved to be the final trigger to mobilize Washington into World War II and set the course for a bloody four-year conflict in the Pacific against Imperial Japan and its proxies.
While other Japanese Prime Minister’s, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, visited Pearl Harbor before, Abe appears to be the first to pay tribute at the USS Arizona Memorial site. Abe’s decision to visit Pearl Harbor was both long overdue and symbolic of the progress of the US-Japan relationship – both in terms of historical reconciliation and also in strategic terms. The two have evolved from arch-adversaries to long-term allies and strategic partners on economic and security matters. Largely due to the growth and subsistence of the US-Japan alliance over the past several decades, Tokyo and Washington have benefited from a shared dividend on economic growth and security in East Asia.
During his remarks at the USS Arizona, Abe reflected: “As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here.” Of course, much of the focus during the visit was on Abe’s words, but this misses the point. The mere presence of Abe laying a wreath on the memorial in Pearl Harbor and offering his condolences and reflections is a symbol in itself of historical reconciliation. Moreover, the gesture from Abe – often criticized for revisionist view on history – is especially poignant and symbolic of the progress of the US-Japan relationship, which is looking to exorcize its last demons.
Indeed, earlier this year, President Obama made a similar historic visit to Hiroshima to pay respects to the victims of the contentious atomic bombing at the conclusion of the war. Obama’s decision to go to Hiroshima was courageous and well appreciated in Japan. Obama too had pressure from home and many reasons not to conduct that visit – as many in the US were concerned that trip might involve – or be construed as – an apology for the use of the atomic bomb. The debate over the necessity of the atomic bombs to end the Pacific war remains a hotly contested issue in the US.
Obama resisted the temptation to sideline the trip and instead conducted a delicate but historic visit. At the time, Obama won the hearts of many in Japan with his carefully crafted but powerful speech, stressing: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the site of the second atomic bombing) are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” But perhaps even more potent than his remarks was the enduring image Obama’s embrace of one of the survivors of the atomic bombing – or hibakusha – at the conclusion of his remarks. The moment captured the best and worst of humanity: sorrow and tragedy alongside hope and renewal.
This is how Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor should be viewed – and the reconciliation of Tokyo and Washington can send powerful messages to states in East Asia where history lies deep and resentments remain strong. During a visit to Washington in 2015, Abe addressed Congress and praised the US servicemen who died during the war “fighting for freedom”. Abe similarly indicated he will not “avert his eyes from history”. Similarly, during his speech at Pearl Harbor, Abe stressed: “The world needs the spirit of tolerance and the power of reconciliation now — and especially now.
The visit to Pearl Harbor also comes at a critical juncture in US-Japan relations, with President-elect Donald Trump slated to assume the Whitehouse next January. Japan, like many other US allies, was surprised by Trump’s election and has been anxious due to the President-elect’s tough campaign rhetoric questioning the value of US alliances. Trump has castigated Tokyo specifically for not “paying its fair share” for the US security guarantee. He has similarly raised concerns in Japan with his pledge to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a mega free trade deal whose largest members are the US and Japan. The surprising language runs contrary to Obama’s signature “rebalance” policy to the Asia-Pacific and was alarming enough to induce Abe to hastily plan a stop-over summit with Trump last month.
The trip to Pearl Harbor thus far has a two-fold objective. The first focus was on historical reconciliation and coming full-circle following Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last year. This lays the normative framework for the second element, which is meant to underscore the strength, resolve and strategic importance of the US-Japan relationship going forward.
J.Berkshire Miller is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, based in Tokyo. Miller is also a senior fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.