The darkest day in United States-Japan relations came out of a clear blue sky. At 7:55am, December 7, 1941, Imperial Japan’s naval and air forces launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, as part of a larger, near-simultaneous, offensive on numerous targets across Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Last Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the attack. Ceremonies were held in Hawai’i, and across the country, commemorating the day when 2,400 American lives were lost, another 1,200 were wounded, and the isolationist United States was propelled into World War II.
Famously described by then President Roosevelt as “a day that will live in infamy,” the strike capped an extended period of deteriorating relations between the US and the Empire of Japan through the 1930s, and represented a failure of diplomacy. The two nations had been in the midst of tense negotiations throughout the fall of 1941 over the oil embargo and economic sanctions that the US and its allies leveled against Japan in response to its invasion of “French Indo-China.” As talks broke down, the strain of the fuel sanctions caused the Japanese military to plan an assault on the oil-fields of Malaysia and the naval forces of the Western powers before the onset of monsoon season.
Few Americans who saw the smoldering wreckage of Pearl Harbor, experienced the period of collective national shock, and witnessed the subsequent march to war, could have imagined the relative serenity of that site seventy years on or the deep ties that now exist between the two nations. Today, US-Japan relations are at an all-time high, with a record 82% of Japanese feeling “friendly” toward the US in an annual Japanese government poll. The militaries of the US and Japan mobilized and met at sea again this year; not in armed struggle, but in cooperation. In March, the US Pacific Air Forces deployed from the same base that had nearly been destroyed by Japanese warplanes just shy of 70 years before, to support Japan’s disaster response in Operation Tomodachi, the largest joint operation of its kind, and a significant factor behind the favorable poll results.
While the two nations share special peacetime ties, they also share the history of the events of Pearl Harbor, albeit with different understandings. For Americans, the USS Arizona Memorial (part of the larger WWII Valor in the Pacific National Memorial), Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and the ceremonies held in commemoration of the episode are to pay respects to those lost, honor those who survived, and reflect on the role of those who protect the nation through military service. Yet, many Americans are surprised to learn that Japanese dignitaries and veterans participate in Pearl Harbor Day programs, and that signs at the USS Arizona are bilingual because so many Japanese visit the historical site.
However, the Japanese look at Pearl Harbor from a different cultural context. In an interview with Dan Rather, Yujin Yaguchi, Professor of American Studies at Tokyo University, explained that rather than viewing the event as victors in battle, the Japanese emphasize the context of the Pacific War that followed and the resulting deaths of an estimated half a million Japanese civilians. In that light, the USS Arizona memorial is perceived as a shrine for peace and a reminder of the destruction of war. The majority of Japanese visitors he has spoken to say, “this is why we have to have peace,” and, “this is why we should never have wars again.” This sentiment is echoed in the ways that Japanese participated in this year’s ceremony, in the form of a religious delegation offering prayers of peace.
The statement by Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gotenba on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor of feeling “great emotion,” and lauding the importance of the US-Japan alliance, highlights the strides made between the two nations in subsequent generations. Thirty-five percent of all students who visit Pearl Harbor are from Japan, which Professor Yaguchi praises as a step in the right direction. At the site itself, the newly renovated visitors center has now been expanded to show guests the broader context of the road to war, something that Chief Historian Daniel Martinez says would have been impossible when he started working there in the 1980s.
A poignant gesture of peace and reconciliation was offered in June of this year that shows how far the US and Japan have come in terms of mutual respect. Grand tea master of the Urasenke School of Tea, Genshitsu Sen XV, who served in the Japanese Imperial air force in WWII, performed the tea ceremony on the USS Arizona memorial in what Hawai’i Governor Neil Abercrombie described as a “bridge of peace.” In the solemn ritual, Sen prepared two bowls of tea, one offered to the 1,177 dead still trapped in the ship’s wreckage below, and the other to world peace. The bowls were then placed on an altar in the memorial’s shrine room, before the etched names of the fallen. The fact that such an event could occur at that site “would have been unheard of even 10 years ago,” Martinez told reporters.