During Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trip to Hawaii, which occurred at the very end of December, he paid a visit to the Pearl Harbor memorial to honor American servicemen who died on December 7, 1941. This day in history was marked by a devastating sneak attack of the Japanese aircraft carrier group on the ships of the US Pacific Fleet that were stationed in Hawaii. It curious that Abe’s visit looked exactly as it was predicted.
Shinzo Abe, accompanied by the sitting US President Barack Obama, took a couple of minutes to stand silence in front of the two monuments, one of which was erected over the torn hull of the USS Arizona, that took a total of 1,200 sailors along with it underwater some 75 years ago. Allegedly, tourists can still observe oil leakage on the surface above the hull, which is often referred to as “the tears of the Arizona.”
As for the leaders of Japan and the United States, they had similar mournful expressions on their faces, that could earlier be observed during Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, but none of the leaders shed a tear, which could be pretty inappropriate if one is to remember that there’s drastic differences in the official evaluation on the real causes of the Pacific War, which broke out after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, even though those differences are rarely mentioned anywhere.
And from the point of view of realpolitik adepts this is perfectly justifiable. Why would anybody bring unnecessary problems in a strategic alliance, when these problems are mere shadows of the times long past, even though those shadows cannot be forgotten or ignored. If one has no words of sincere apology or explanation to offer, it’s better for the bilateral relations for the leaders to stand side by side in silence, such is the unwritten rule and it is observed whenever there’s a complicated issue to address.
The quiet presence of Barack Obama at a commemorative ceremony in Hiroshima did not mean that he was making any apologies for the atomic bombing of August 1945, and this fact was emphasized by a number of Western media sources. Naturally, Shinzo Abe behaved accordingly when he visited Pearl Harbor. In the visitors’ book of the memorial he possibly left the shortest entry to date, that reads as just “Shinzo Abe”.
In this regard, one can find hidden symbolism contained in the visit of Japan’s Defence Minister of Tomomi Inada to a holy Shrine that is believed to contain the souls of all Japanese soldiers deceased in wars over the last 150 years. It’s believed that among those souls one can find those that belonged to Japan’s wartime leaders that were executed in accordance with the decision of the Tokyo Tribunal. Therefore, Tomomi Inada’s step once again reminded everyone that Japan’s sitting authorities have their own attitude towards the events that unraveled nearly a century ago.
However, from the standpoint of the present-day bilateral challenges, those concerns don’t look all that important, since it seems that Shinzo Abe has been desperate to use Barack Obama as a sort of an envoy to the president-elect in a bid to establish special relationships with the latter. However, it seems that Obama and Trump have little to no contacts, and the president-elect doesn’t seem to be contended with this fact.
It’s remarkable that Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor has been widely criticized in Japan, where some of the surviving witnesses of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima expressed regret that Japan’s Prime Minister did not bring any words of apology along with him. The Japanese society is now mature enough to recognize that a state can attain universal respect along with favorable political and economic preferences without firing a single shot and not losing a single soldier.
Finally, Washington’s and Tokyo’s attempts to show mutual courtesy have been closely observed by another capital – Beijing. Against the background of commemorative ceremonies in Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, China expressed its bewilderment over Japan’s and Washington’s selective memory. It should be noted that long before Japan launched its devastated attack on Pearl Harbor it had been waging a brutal war against China for years.
By the time the war in the Pacific was over, not just thousands, but a million of Chinese citizens lost their lives. In recent years, China has been taking steps to honor the victims of the Japanese oppression, especially those who were butchered in the course of the so-called Nanjing massacre in 1937.
In October 2015, UNESCO accepted the documents about the massacre submitted by Beijing in the “Memory of the World” program, which resulted in Tokyo protesting against this step so loud that it decided to stop supporting this organization.
One’s official attitude towards some difficult episodes of history always depends on the current state of relations between states. When former enemies become allies – a leader remains silent when some “inconvenient” historical episodes are mentioned, but when bilateral ties leave much to be desired, there’s no end to mutual accusations.
In this regard it’s curious that the leading Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun commented Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor by welcoming Japanese-US reconciliation while at the same time wondering how Japan’s Prime Minster could ever forget about Asia.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”