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Editorial: Japan-U.S. reconciliation welcome, but where were Abe’s thoughts for Asia?

The late Daniel Inouye, the first Japanese-American to serve in the United States Senate, was in his home state of Hawaii for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 17 years old at the time, and he wrote about the experience in his 1967 memoir “Journey to Washington.”


Inouye recounts an angry voice on the radio, saying that Pearl Harbor was being bombed by Japanese forces, that it wasn’t a drill. He reports that he and other Japanese-Americans were suddenly seized by a terrible dread.


Inouye volunteered for the U.S. Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed of “Nisei” second-generation Japanese-Americans. He went on to fight in Europe, where he lost his lower right arm in combat. Inouye returned to Hawaii after World War II, going on to become first a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and later the Senate.


However, Inouye says in the book that the moment that the first plane with the red rising sun markings sliced across the Hawaiian sky, he felt like every Nisei in America had an invisible cross to bear. To prove his loyalty to his country, Inouye thought there was no choice but to join the war effort.


On Dec. 27, Hawaii time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined U.S. President Barack Obama at Pearl Harbor, the site of the Pacific War’s opening blows, to pay his respects to the dead. The war drastically changed the courses of many people’s lives. For America’s Nisei in particular, the war against the country of their roots was particularly painful. However, Inouye overcame all of that to become a bridge-builder between the nation of his heritage and the nation of his birth.


After the war, Japan and the U.S. signed a security treaty, making them allies. However, historical grievances persisted. On the U.S. side, there was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s treatment of U.S. prisoners of war. For Japan, there was the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese-Americans.

To help heal these scars and foster reconciliation, in May this year Obama made the first visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president. Abe reciprocated in a way with his trip to Pearl Harbor, and we must praise both leaders for their efforts to turn the page on the painful history.


Of course, Abe’s Pearl Harbor visit won’t erase all the ill feeling between Japan and the U.S. stemming from the Pacific War. The reconciliation process must continue. However, the fact that each leader visited sites of enormous wartime importance for the other nation has symbolic value.

It has been 75 years since Japan and the U.S. went to war with each other. Certainly, Abe and Obama standing together at Pearl Harbor has shown not just the people of Japan and the U.S., but indeed the entire world, how strong the bilateral alliance is, and that the two countries have walked the path of reconciliation.


The key phrases in Abe’s speech nearby the USS Arizona Memorial were “spirit of tolerance” and “power of reconciliation.” He credited the U.S.’s “spirit of tolerance” for bringing about Japan-U.S. reconciliation, and acknowledged how rare it is for two countries that were once such bitter wartime enemies to become allies.


The same elements laced President Obama’s own address, in which he said, “The most bitter of adversaries can become the strongest of allies.”


The leaders’ speeches, while both acknowledging the sense of impending crisis gripping the international community, also effectively communicated the maturity of the Japan-U.S. alliance.


In his remarks, Abe said, “There is no end to the spiral where hatred creates hatred,” while Obama declared, “It is here (at Pearl Harbor) that we remember that, even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.” These lines appear to have been included with the coming presidency of Donald Trump in mind.


However, Prime Minister Abe’s speech was lacking in some areas as well.

First of all, while Abe did declare that “we must never repeat the horrors of war again,” why didn’t Japan avoid the last one, a reckless conflict that would go on to claim the lives of some 3 million Japanese citizens? It was disappointing that Abe made no mention of his thinking on World War II.

Another weakness was the absence of even a glance in Asia’s direction. Japan waged war against countries across Asia, and both Abe’s speech to the U.S. Congress and his statement on the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end last year dealt with Japan’s perspective as the aggressor nation. Not so on Dec. 27.


It seems likely that Abe thinks of the 70th anniversary statement and his Pearl Harbor visit as a decisive break with the “postwar era” and a boost to developing a forward-looking diplomatic stance.


However, what Abe thinks of Japan’s brutal war with China that grew out of the 1931 Manchurian Incident, or the events that led up to the Pearl Harbor attack, or this country’s 1910 annexation of the Korean Peninsula is a vital issue that goes to the very foundation of what kind of country Japan is.


In addition to talking about the future, Abe should face Japan’s history with humility, and cultivate an attitude based on measured reflection on the past.

It must be remembered that the road to Abe’s appearance at Pearl Harbor was built by many people from both sides over many years.


For example, Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, is the hometown of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy Combined Fleet in 1941. Though he penned the plan that would launch the Pacific War, Yamamoto fought long and hard against attacking the United States. Nagaoka spent long time convincing the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu that Yamamoto was against the war and four years ago they became sister cities. And in summer 2015, the 70th since the war’s end, the U.S. Navy helped put on a Nagaoka fireworks display at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the dead. Nagaoka’s mayor was also one of those on hand for Abe’s Hawaii visit.


We would like to see the same kind of bridge-building with Japan’s Asian neighbors.


President Obama stated in his speech, “As nations and as people, we cannot choose the history that we inherit, but we can choose what lessons to draw from it, and use those lessons to chart our own futures.”


Both the U.S. and Japan have a responsibility to remember the lessons of war, and to make their reconciliation the foundation stone for promoting world peace and stability.

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