Putting 75 years of resentment behind them, the leaders of the United States and Japan came together at Pearl Harbor yesterday for a historic pilgrimage to the site where the bloodshed of the surprise attacks drew America into the Second World War.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit with US president Barack Obama is powerful proof that the former enemies have transcended the recriminatory impulses that weighed down relations after the war, Japan’s government has said.
Although Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, Mr Abe will be the first to visit the memorial that now rests on the hallowed waters above the sunken USS Arizona.
For Mr Obama, it is likely to be the last time he will meet a foreign leader as president, White House aides said. It is a bookend of sorts for the president, who nearly eight years ago invited Mr Abe’s predecessor to be the first leader that Mr Obama hosted at the White House.
For Mr Abe, it’s an act of symbolic reciprocity, coming six months after Mr Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima in Japan, where the US dropped an atomic bomb in hopes of ending the war.
“This visit, and the president’s visit to Hiroshima earlier this year, would not have been possible eight years ago,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, Mr Obama’s top Asia adviser.
“That we are here today is the result of years of efforts at all levels of our government and societies, which has allowed us to jointly and directly deal with even the most sensitive aspects of our shared history.” More than 2,300 Americans died on 7 December, 1941, when more than 300 Japanese fighter planes and bombers attacked. More than 1,000 others were wounded.
In the ensuing years, the US incarcerated roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps before dropping atomic bombs in 1945 that killed some 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki. Mr Abe will not apologise for Pearl Harbor, his government has said. Nor did Mr Obama apologise at Hiroshima in May, a visit that he and Mr Abe used to emphasise their elusive aspirations for a nuclear-free future.
No apology needed, said 96-year-old Alfred Rodrigues, a US Navy veteran who survived what president Franklin D Roosevelt called a “date which will live in infamy.” “War is war,” Mr Rodrigues said as he looked at old photos of his military service. “They were doing what they were supposed to do, and we were doing what we were supposed to do.”
After a formal meeting, Mr Obama and Mr Abe planned to lay a wreath aboard the USS Arizona Memorial, which is accessible only by boat.
Then they will go to nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where both leaders will speak.
Though the parallels with Mr Obama’s Hiroshima visit are palpable, both governments said that one visit was not contingent on the other.
Though the history books have largely deemed Pearl Harbor a surprise attack, Japan’s government said as recently as this month that it had intended to give the US prior notice it was declaring war and failed only because of “bureaucratic bungling.”