Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe walking in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in May 2016.
Shinzo Abe’s visit isn’t unprecedented, but it’s an important gesture as US-Japanese relations evolve.
About six months ago, President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, the site of one of the nuclear strikes that devastated Japan during World War II and accelerated its complete surrender to the US and its allies. In a bid to reciprocate the gesture, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is visiting Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, an act Tokyo has painted as a historic and unprecedented move.
It turns out that it’s happened before — and that least three other Japanese leaders made the trip before Abe did.
In 1951, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida “paid a quiet visit” to Pearl Harbor, the scene of the surprise attack by Japan in December 1941 that killed more than 2,300 Americans and helped bring the US into World War II, according to the New York Times.
In 1956, Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama visited Pearl Harbor, where he was greeted with a 19-gun salute and a band that played both the American and Japanese anthems.
And in 1957, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi paid a visit to the base after meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower.
In other words, there’s nothing unprecedented about a Japanese prime minister visiting Pearl Harbor. In response to the reports, Japan is now framing Abe’s visit as the first time a sitting Japanese prime minister has visited the USS Arizona Memorial that was built in 1962 to honor the service members slain in the attack. It’s also saying it’s the first time the visit will be carried out with a US president.
It’s not entirely clear why Abe’s administration made the incorrect claim about the historic nature of his visit, though the earlier visits don’t appear to have drawn much press attention at the time.
It’s also important to note that Abe won’t be apologizing for the attack, with a close aide saying he will instead “express remorse,” according to the Times. That would mirror the approach Obama took during his May 2016 trip to Hiroshima, when the president didn’t apologize for the attack but instead met with survivors and spoke of its high human cost.
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” Obama said at the time.
There’s another vital piece of subtext to the trip by the Japanese leader, a nationalist who has successfully pushed for record defense spending and efforts to weaken his country’s commitment to pacifism.
President-elect Donald Trump has rattled many in Japan by arguing that the US spends too much money protecting Japan and that Tokyo should develop nuclear weapons of its own rather than relying on America for its defense. Abe, in turn, is already scrambling to build close ties with the incoming administration. The Japanese leader was the first to personally meet with Trump after the mogul’s surprise win in November, and Abe’s spokespeople have taken pains to stress that they believe Trump will remain committed to the longstanding US-Japanese alliance.
“Trump’s campaign rhetoric is campaign rhetoric,” Tamaki Tsukada, spokesperson for the Japanese embassy to the US, told the Washington Post. “We don’t believe the electorate or constituents take those message literally. In fact, you might have noticed that throughout the campaign, at one stage his rhetoric was extremely anti-Japan, with Japan-bashing type of language, but after a certain point it disappeared. By and large, we think he has a normal kind of balance.”
Trump’s actual Japan policies remain to be seen. But paying respects at Pearl Harbor — no matter careful the language — is a good way for the Japanese leader to improve his country’s relationship with the new US president.