The Debate

The Significance of Abe’s Pearl Harbor Visit

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The Debate

The Significance of Abe’s Pearl Harbor Visit

The Japanese prime minister’s visit shows that liberals don’t have the monopoly on reconciliation.

The Significance of Abe’s Pearl Harbor Visit
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

On the morning of December 27, 2016 local time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the war. Afterwards, in a speech in front of ex-servicemen who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, Abe vowed to renounce war, emphasizing the power of Japan-U.S. reconciliation, which has turned enemies into close allies.

Taken together with Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May, the visit to Pearl Harbor demonstrates the progress Japan and the U.S. have made with historical reconciliation. On the other hand, the visit once again highlighted the current stagnation in historical reconciliation in Asia. Commenting on Abe’s visit, China, Korea, and certain historians in the United States warned that Japan could not put its wartime past behind it without reconciling with Asia. China said that the visit to Pearl Harbor should have been preceded by a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, and that Japan must face up to its past of aggressive warfare.

In the interests of historical reconciliation, Japan should continue to pay careful and sincere attention to calls for it to “face the past,” calls that are a constant refrain in the controversy over World War II. However, I would venture to emphasize that appealing for historical reconciliation is more than just a matter of facing up to the wars of the past.

Japan-U.S. reconciliation has been supported by “another past” that took place after World War II. According to a Pew Research Center survey published in April 2015, 31 percent of Americans gave World War II as an answer to the question “As you think about relations between the United States and Japan over the last 75 years, which one of these events is most important in your opinion,” but the same number also mentioned the Great East Japan earthquake in 2011. In response to that disaster, the United States launched Operation Tomodachi, mobilizing more than 20,000 officers and men, around twenty warships and 160 aircraft to provide support when the unprecedented disaster struck East Japan. In Japan, the top answer was the U.S.-Japan alliance since World War II, which was mentioned by 36 percent of respondents, followed by 20 percent who mentioned the support from the United States at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, and 17 percent who said World War II.

In other words, the past where the two countries fought a war as enemies is not the only past that determines the mutual sentiments of people in Japan and the United States today. It is not possible to erase war memories, but it is possible to relativize it and to build another past with a fresh perspective. Some have criticized Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and the visit of both heads of state to Pearl Harbor as empty political performance setting the stage for “reconciliation,” but their actions should be viewed as a symbolic endorsement of the well-established historical reconciliation between the United States and Japan.

Moreover, a more interactive understanding of past conflict has been encouraged amid efforts to build another postwar past between Japan and the United States, where opinion was once strongly antagonistic and it seemed there was no margin for compromise. The changes at the USS Arizona Memorial, which the two leaders visited, are a case in point. The memorial was built in 1962 and spans the remains of the battleship USS Arizona, which sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Initially, the displays emphasized the injury done to the United States, but by the early twenty-first century they were also incorporating the Japanese perspective, intending to deepen understanding of the tragedy of war. Today, the exhibits include interviews with former Zero fighter plane pilots, and the fact that Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the combined fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor, was opposed to war with the United States. The exhibits are not only about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but seek to facilitate understanding of the context of Pearl Harbor; they also show the evolution of U.S. policy in Asia leading up to the start of the war and describe what knowledge Japanese leaders had of the outside world at the time.

Implications for Historical Reconciliation in Asia

Unfortunately, the displays at the Yushukan Museum on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, and those at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, are lacking in this kind of interactivity and contextual understanding. They suggest that the prospects for historical reconciliation in Asia are not bright. Still, the significance of the historical reconciliation furthered by a conservative politician like Abe is not small.

In Asia, reconciliation and nationalism are seen as diametrically opposed. Reconciliation with neighboring countries is synonymous with sacrificing nationalism – the options are assumed to be mutually exclusive. Thus, if there is any sign of rapprochement between Japan and neighboring countries, public opinion is increasingly critical of the “compromise” with the other country and politicians aligning themselves with public opinion will repeatedly take steps to reverse the compromise.

As a politician, however, this pattern does not necessarily apply to Abe. When the second Abe administration was formed at the end of 2012, few people expected any progress on historical reconciliation. Repeatedly referring to the possibility of revising the Murayama Statement and the Kono Statement, Abe drew fire not only from China and Korea, but also from the United States. Reports by the Congressional Research Service in the United States frequently referred to Abe’s view on history as “revisionist,” expressing concerns that it had the potential to produce chaos in regional relations and to harm U.S. interests.

Some of Abe’s actions, such as the visit to Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013, have reinforced international concerns, but since then he has refrained from visiting the shrine. There are still significant barriers to historical reconciliation in Asia, but the fact that Abe, who has consistently aligned himself with a nationalist view of history, has showed an appetite for historical reconciliation and a willingness to make progress, indicates that reconciliation and nationalism may in fact be able to coexist. Today, with domestic nationalism on the rise and reconciliation considered increasingly difficult, perhaps it is time to bring the power of imagination to exploring new compromises.

Seiko Mimaki is an assistant professor at Kansai Gaidai University.