The Cable

What to Expect From Japanese PM’s Visit to Pearl Harbor

Looking ahead to what may be the most charged of all commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.


Seventy-five years ago today, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, dashing the remnants of American isolationism and pushing the United States into a world war that would dramatically reshape its role in the global order.

Among the many commemorations of the attack — around 4,000 are expected to be at the commemoration ceremony today, and the U.S. national World War II Museum is holding its own ceremony, too  — perhaps the most charged will come later this month, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor. Abe said on Monday that “It’s a visit to commemorate the victims. We should not repeat the horrors of war.”

It’s a visit that comes in the middle of a potentially huge adjustment for the United States, Japan, and the future of Asia — even as leaders today continue to grapple with the ghosts of the war that shaped modern-day Asia. In May, President Barack Obama went to Hiroshima, where he expressed sympathy, but did not actually offer an apology for history’s first atomic attack. Of Obama’s upcoming visit, the White House simply said, “the two leaders’ visit will showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into the closest of allies, united by common interests and shared values.”

Abe’s unapologetic approach to Japan’s wartime history has stirred conflicts with China and South Korea. It was only in 2015 that Japan reached a deal with South Korea to provide compensation to “comfort women” — sex slaves for Japanese soldiers, only 46 of whom were still alive at the time. In 2012, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s dead in the war, much to the ire of the Chinese. He did not visit this August, but did send money and religious ornaments. In 2015, Abe skipped events in China marking 70 years of the end of World War II. And though he noted the “immeasurable damage and suffering” Japan caused China and South Korea during the war, he himself did not issue his own apology. Abe will apparently not apologize for the attack on Pearl Harbor, either.

His visit comes as Japan is revising the pacifism that has defined it since the war. Abe lobbied for a reinterpretation of the constitution, which came into effect in March amid rising regional tensions, especially with a prickly and quickly-modernizing China. The reforms allow Tokyo to deploy troops overseas, and to defend allies. In November, Japan deployed troops authorized to use force, though not engage with an opposing army, for the first time in decades as part of a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. Japan is also boosting defense spending and modernizing its navy and air force, and is looking to re-start arms exports after decades off the market.

That suggests that Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor is looking as much at the past as at the future. President-elect Donald Trump bashed Japan for decades and kept bashing it on the campaign trail this year, calling into question future U.S. commitment to the defense pact with Japan and rattling policymakers across the region. Before even taking office, Trump is threatening to rewrite decades of U.S. diplomacy in Asia, as shown in the phone conversation with Taiwan’s president. Abe seems to be looking as much for reassurance in Hawaii as for closure.

“I’d like to make it an opportunity to send a message to the world that we will further strengthen and maintain our alliance towards the future,” he said.

Photo credit: KIMIMASA MAYAMA/AFP/Getty Images

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