Japanese Prime Minister Visits Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaiʻi

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by Caitlin Brophy
US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe present wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial to honor the dead. [Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay M. Chu/Released]

Seven months after President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe journeyed to Pearl Harbor in Hawaiʻi last week to pay respect to those who lost their lives during Japan’s surprise attack on December 7, 1941.

Abe’s visit is not the first by a Japanese Prime Minister – Shigeru Yoshida made a private visit to Pearl Harbor on his way back from signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, followed by Ichiro Hatoyama and Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in the same decade – but Abe is the first to acknowledge Japan’s past aggression and to visit the USS Arizona Memorial alongside a US President.

Offering his “sincere and everlasting condolences” PM Abe vowed to “never repeat the horrors of war again”. Abe made no outright apology, just as President Obama did not offer one while laying a wreath in front of the eternal flame at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Obama was the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima. Both leaders faced pressure and criticism over official apologies, and although neither made an apology, the symbolism of the two visits offered a sense of reconciliation and closure to the events that began and ended World War II in the Pacific.

While at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, President Obama said Abe’s presence was a reminder that wars can end and enemies can become allies, highlighting the US-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of US relations in Asia. Cooperation between the two countries ranges from environmental issues to trade, and Japanese cities enjoy the longest running sister city relationships with US cities. Additionally, US recently began its first delivery of F-35s to Japan, the only foreign country not involved in development to take a delivery of the plane.

PM Abe was also the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Trump, flying out to New York one week after the election to shore up the importance of the US-Japan relationship with the new administration.

In addition to being President Obama’s home state, Hawaiʻi has built a robust friendship with Japan since the end of the war. In 1948, Hawaiʻi donated over 500 pigs to Okinawa to combat food shortages in the region. Trade between Hawaiʻi and Japan exceeds half a billion dollars, including a robust culinary exchange and almost $300 million in tourist spending. The state has 23 sister relationships with Japanese cities, towns, and prefectures.

Caitlin Brophy is a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington.