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Pearl Harbor 80 years on: Lessons and legacies

  • December 1, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:00 a.m.
  • English Press

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor


TOKYO — Dec. 7 marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The surprise attack, which came on Dec. 8 Japan time and triggered the Pacific War, culminated in the total surrender of Japan four years later, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.


But it took until 2016 for the countries, treaty allies for six decades, to revisit this fraught episode of their past. That year, then-U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went to Pearl Harbor, important steps in healing the remaining wounds between Japan and the U.S.


Even now, the events of eight decades ago have yet to be put entirely to rest. Important questions of historical guilt and reconciliation remain to be resolved as the countries seek to preserve and deepen their alliance.


This was clear when new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave his first foreign policy speech on Oct. 8. He mentioned his personal connection to Hiroshima — he was first elected in 1993 to the lower house from Hiroshima’s 1st district and has been the area’s elected representative ever since. He also talked about a major initiative that is a nod to the war’s legacy. “My goal,” he said, “is ‘a world without nuclear weapons.’ I will use a council of experts to bridge differences between nuclear and non-nuclear states, fulfilling our responsibility as the only country to have experienced an atomic bombing.”


“I will pick up the torch of nuclear abolition that other great world leaders have carried before me, and I will do my utmost to achieve ‘a world without nuclear weapons,'” he stressed.


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida states his goal for “a world without nuclear weapons” on October 8.

While the initiative could hardly be controversial, it has raised concerns in Tokyo and Washington: The U.S. nuclear umbrella is a central component of Japan’s defense, and observers worry that moving quickly toward Kishida’s “world without nuclear weapons” could send the wrong signal to Japan’s potential adversaries. One of these is China, which has publicly said it will unify with Taiwan. Another, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flouts U.N. Security Council resolutions with impunity, repeatedly conducting ballistic missile tests.


Achieving “a world without nuclear weapons” shows how present-day security dilemmas hinge crucially on the past. Getting international opinions on the same page involves more work between Japan and the U.S. Since Obama and Abe’s historic visits five years ago, there has been no sign of progress toward “a world without nuclear weapons.”


Making history


As a correspondent at Nikkei’s Washington bureau, I covered Obama’s and Abe’s pilgrimages in 2016. As Japan’s foreign minister at the time, Kishida played a major role in bringing about Obama’s Hiroshima visit.

Rereading the transcript of my interview with Kishida at the time, he said the following:


“U.S. ambassadors to Japan, including Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, have attended the Peace Memorial Ceremony, and Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park during the G-7 foreign ministers’ meeting. I believe that this led to the historic decision of the first U.S. presidential visit to the site of the atomic bombing.”


When I asked what he was thinking during Obama’s speech, Kishida replied, “It was a philosophical speech, filled with his own feelings, and I felt that Hiroshima, Japan and the rest of the world were wrapped in a quiet stillness. It was beyond a sense of time — whether it was long or short.” The speech was supposed to last six minutes, but Obama spoke for 17 minutes, he said.


Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Barack Obama and then Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida take in the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima on May 25, 2016. As Foreign Minister, Kishida played a significant role in bringing about Obama’s visit. (Pool photo)

Just as the Japanese people have many feelings about Hiroshima, Americans hold special feelings for Pearl Harbor. A glimpse of this appeared in Obama’s 2016 speech at Pearl Harbor. “Here at Pearl Harbor, America’s first battle of the Second World War roused a nation. Here, in so many ways, America came of age.” In an instant, the Japanese attack undid the isolationism of the U.S., which had been hesitant to involve itself in a European war.


“Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,” U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his Dec. 8 speech to Congress, in which he asked for a declaration of war. Four years later, in August 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fact that, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 56% of the U.S. public still feels the bombings were justified because they “hastened the end of the war” speaks to the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


In his speech, Obama said, “And while, 75 years later, the proud ranks of Pearl Harbor survivors have thinned with time, the bravery we recall here is forever etched in our national heart.” He concluded by saying, “It is here 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.”


U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks to a joint session of Congress in Washington on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.   © AP

Will Kishida also stand at Pearl Harbor? He tells those close to him that he is “not thinking about it at all.” The risks for him are political. Kishida has focused on containing the new coronavirus pandemic and resuscitating Japan’s economy. He has determined that it would be difficult to gain the public’s understanding for a visit to Pearl Harbor with these tasks unfinished.


The other risk is the issue of feasibility. A visit by Kishida to Pearl Harbor and Biden to Hiroshima are seen as a paired set. With his approval rating sagging, Biden must focus on domestic issues. It will be difficult for him to devote time and energy to foreign policy, at least until after next autumn’s midterm elections, and even then only if his approval rating improves.


Kishida is in a similar position. Until the upper house elections next summer, policy will be focused on domestic issues rather than foreign affairs. Raising the possibility of such a high-profile visit, only to have it fall through, is a definite risk. These two reasons explain why Kishida is “not thinking about it at all.”


Although the ruling Liberal Democratic Party won an absolute stable majority of 261 seats in the recent lower house elections, the Diet will grind to a halt if it does not maintain its majority in the upper house. Control of the upper house is an important bellwether of Japanese politics. The Liberal Democratic Party lost miserably in the 2007 upper house elections, and the Democratic Party of Japan was similarly defeated in the 2010 upper house elections. Each time, the parties went on to lose power in the lower house two years later.


A U.S. military facility goes up in flames after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941. A lasting legacy of the attack is that more than half of Americans believe the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified.    © U.S. Navy photo/Kyodo

With so much at stake, Kishida would not risk alienating anyone with a purely symbolic gesture. His basic strategy is to play things safe, and not adopt any politically risky policy until after he is past the upper house elections.

If the U.S. is to be involved in the push for “a world without nuclear weapons,” it will have to be after those elections. Even if Kishida cannot devote his political energies to “a world without nuclear weapons” until then, after the voting he might face new circumstances.


Voluntary visits


The 2016 visits almost did not happen, amid political calculations on both sides that they would inflame conservative opinion. Institutional obstacles also stood in the way: Bureaucrats worried lest the symbolism undermine the appearance of resolve in the face of adversaries.


The plan for Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor first surfaced in April 2015, just before he was scheduled to visit the U.S. The U.S. side was the one that asked him if he would be willing to come to Pearl Harbor before going to Washington. It had been nearly six years since Obama had expressed his desire to visit Hiroshima in 2009.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama deliver remarks at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, U.S., Dec. 27, 2016. Obama had visited Hiroshima seven months earlier. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Why was the plan left untouched for six years? In a U.S. diplomatic cable released by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Mitoji Yabunaka, then the top bureaucrat at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, opposed the U.S. proposal for Obama to visit Hiroshima, calling it “premature.”


In 2016, I traveled from Washington to Kyoto to interview Yabunaka. When I asked him to confirm the authenticity of the cable, he pushed back, saying, “‘Premature’ is meaningless. If it’s premature, when will it be ‘mature’? I would not use the word ‘premature.'”


But when I asked another Japanese government official, they said, “There’s no way the Americans would mishear the word ‘premature,'” indicating they thought Yabunaka may have made the statement.


The pushback to Obama’s visit was not reflective of Yabunaka’s personal thinking but rather the line from the Foreign Ministry. Because Japan is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the ministry wanted to avoid the risk that a presidential visit to Hiroshima would be misunderstood by China and North Korea. That fundamental thinking does not appear to have changed much.


Obama, meanwhile, wanted to establish his political legacy before his presidency ended in January 2017. The White House, worried about backlash from conservatives, decided that Abe needed to visit Pearl Harbor first.


In the U.S., a presidential visit to Hiroshima could be taken as an apology, which may run counter to public opinion. The White House was particularly worried about the response from conservatives, including veterans.


At 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” detonates over Hiroshima with an explosive yield of around 13 kilotons, raising the temperature to over 4,000 C.   © Kyodo

U.S. officials believed they could win over the public by preemptively visiting Pearl Harbor. This time the Japanese side declined. They did not want a visit to Pearl Harbor to be seen as a “deal” for a visit to Hiroshima.


It was a delicate time for Japan-U.S. relations. In December 2013 Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial shrine for the spirits of Japan’s war dead, including 14 class A war criminals. The U.S. government said it was “disappointed,” and when Obama visited Japan in April 2014 as a state guest, the trip was a low-key affair because his wife, Michelle, did not attend.


Within the U.S. government, the State Department was criticized for failing to get ahead of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, and the White House took the lead in foreign affairs. The idea for the visit to Pearl Harbor originated in the State Department. It aimed to pave the way for Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and make up for its poor showing in the power struggle with the White House for control of U.S. diplomacy.


After the Japanese side refused, the idea of the Pearl Harbor visit lost steam but remained an option. It resurfaced in May 2016 during Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. By going to Hiroshima without an earlier Pearl Harbor trip, the visit was seen as something Obama truly wished to do.


The fact that Obama did not apologize for the atomic bombing also made it easier for Abe to go to Pearl Harbor. The Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor visits were not an exchange, and Abe could visit Pearl Harbor before Obama left office. The two countries reached a “tacit understanding.”


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine in December of 2013. The U.S. government says it is “disappointed” by the visit. (Photo by Koji Uema)

If the two points were connected by a clear deal, their historical significance would have been diminished. Japan and the U.S. settled on two options for when Abe’s Pearl Harbor visit could happen. One was around the time of a meeting of leaders of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members, which would be held in the Peruvian capital of Lima in November. The other was at the end of the year, when Obama would take his annual Hawaii vacation.


The plans were thrown into disarray when Republican Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November. Tokyo, which had anticipated Hillary Clinton would emerge the winner, had to rush to respond to the unexpected result.


Abe hurried to meet with Trump in New York before his trip to Lima for APEC, leaving the Obama camp clearly uncomfortable. If the Abe administration stayed distant from Obama, bilateral relations could be at risk under future Democratic administrations. During a 10-minute meeting with Obama at the APEC summit, which took place with the leaders standing, Abe confirmed that Obama would vacation in Hawaii as usual and then said he would visit Pearl Harbor on Dec. 26 and Dec. 27.


Like his own visit to Hiroshima, Obama was sure to emphasize that Abe’s trip was “voluntary.” “For you, [the visit to Pearl Harbor] shouldn’t be forced.” This was the moment when Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor were connected by an invisible line.


Alliance management


The chain of events that led to Abe’s visit shows that a trip by Kishida would likely be connected to the movements of current U.S. President Joe Biden.


Biden’s policy of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan led to a resurgence of the Taliban. As the situation in the Middle East has become more fluid, his approval ratings have plummeted, and the midterm congressional elections next fall are expected to be hard-fought.


Biden has been unable to accommodate the Japan-U.S. summit that Kishida wants to hold sooner rather than later. With Kishida preparing for the next upper house elections and Biden readying for the midterms, it will be difficult for them to replicate the diplomacy of Abe and Obama.


The security risks posed by China and North Korea will prompt a further deepening of the Japan-U.S. alliance, however, and this may mean further movement on reckoning with history.


Chinese President Xi Jinping visits a Beijing Winter Olympics site in January. More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden has said he is considering a “diplomatic boycott” of the games to protest China’s human rights violations.   © Xinhua/Kyodo

Biden has announced that he is considering a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, meaning only the athletes’ delegation would attend. The move would be in protest of China’s crackdown on human rights in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and elsewhere, but human rights is an issue that transcends the Republican and Democratic parties. When China is involved, it is clear that Biden cannot afford to look weak.


Regarding the boycott of the Beijing Olympics, Kishida said, “Each country has its own position and thoughts. Japan will consider things from Japan’s perspective.” In 1980, Japan was ultimately unable to resist U.S. pressure and joined a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Considering things from Japan’s perspective, it is possible the country will join the U.S.


“An alliance is like a garden that needs constant tending,” said Ryozo Kato, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Obama and Abe’s visits to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor were described as having removed a lingering irritant in bilateral relations. But it remains to be seen how Biden and Kishida will further deepen the alliance.

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