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Abe’s visit will be a defining moment

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    Then-Crown Prince Akihito paid his respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on April 6, 1953.


    Shinzo Abe:

    He will meet with President Obama at Pearl Harbor

Shinzo Abe’s visit to the USS Arizona Memorial on Tuesday — the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister — will be a moral and strategic defining moment for a country still atoning for war 75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, experts say.

In doing so, Abe is seeking acceptance of a larger Japanese role in Asia-Pacific defense — by admitting its past wrongs and emphasizing it is a changed nation.

Abe wants to close the postwar era and move Japan from the shadow of World War II, noted Brad Glosserman, an Asia expert and executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.

“It’s a different Japan, and the people that are leading the country and the vast majority of the citizens are not the people that were in any way present or involved with the events of World War II,” Glosserman said. “But the mere absence of that direct personal connection doesn’t wipe the slate clean.”

Japan’s warring past — including that at Pearl Harbor — has to be acknowl­edged first.

Abe, whose nationalist agenda included pushing for laws to broaden the use of Japan’s self-defense forces, recognizes that the Arizona Memorial visit “is a vital step that his country and he need to take if in fact Japan is to assume the role in the 21st century that he thinks it should and rightly deserves to play,” Glosserman said.

The White House said Dec. 5 that President Barack Obama, in Hawaii for his last presidential vacation, would meet with Abe in Honolulu on Tuesday.

The meeting will be an “opportunity for the two leaders to review our joint efforts over the past four years to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, including our close cooperation on a number of security, economic, and global challenges,” the White House said.

Obama also will accompany Abe to the USS Arizona Memorial to honor those killed and to “showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into the closest of allies, united by common interests and shared values.”

In a Dec. 7 statement on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Obama noted that more than 2,400 American patriots lost their lives, while their sacrifice “galvanized millions of GIs and Rosie the Riveters who answered the call to defend liberty.”

But as a testament that even the most bitter of adversaries can become close friends, Obama said he was looking forward to the “historic” visit to the USS Arizona Memorial with Abe as part of an alliance that “will continue to work hand-in-hand for a more peaceful and secure world.”

The two nations’ leaders are expected to make a floral presentation for the lives lost on Dec. 7, 1941. In the spirit of reconciliation, the White House also invited members of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society to attend the event.

The group is dedicated to perpetuating the stories of those who defended the Philippines and other outposts early in the Pacific war and then became prisoners of war. Members Jan Thompson and Nancy Kragh, whose fathers were POWs, are coming to Hawaii.

Thompson said Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor is encouraging. “The U.S.-Japan alliance is a working model for the world: two bitter adversaries are now strong allies — but reconciliation is still a work in progress,” she said.

Abe is not expected to apologize for the surprise Pearl Harbor attack, but some conservatives in Japan — who believe the nation was forced into war by crippling U.S. sanctions — fear he might.

The prime minister will express remorse and Japanese responsibility for what happened, Glosserman predicts. Abe has done so in the past. On April 29, 2015, before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Abe noted Pearl Harbor, Bataan and the Coral Sea and said that with “deep repentance in my heart,” he offered “with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.”

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in August 2015, meanwhile, Abe said that “Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” He also stated, “Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering.”

In May, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, devastated by a U.S. nuclear bomb dropped in 1945. The president offered sympathy but not an apology, and asked: “Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past,” and to mourn the dead, including more than 100,000 Japanese, thousands of Koreans and a dozen American prisoners.

Japan has been on the path to reconciliation with Hawaii and Pearl Harbor since at least 1951, when then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida paid a brief visit to the Navy base and met Adm. Arthur Radford, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Arizona Memorial was yet to be built.

In 1953 then-Crown Prince Akihito paid his respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. In 1960 he visited Pearl Harbor. Emperor Akihito planned to visit the Arizona Memorial in 1994, but objections from within Japan led to a wreath-laying at Punchbowl instead. The emperor again laid a wreath at Punchbowl in 2009.

The Navy and Consulate General of Japan in Honolulu held a reconciliation and friendship ceremony Dec. 8 on Ford Island recognizing the American losses as well as the approximately 65 Japanese servicemen who died conducting their mission on Dec. 7, 1941.

Glosserman said both Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and Abe’s to the Arizona Memorial “are moral gestures” that “address a whole series of interests that while political in the real sense, nevertheless transcend that quite considerably.”

Still, there is the strategic importance of the visit. Reforms urged by Abe and enacted in March allow Japan to exercise collective self-defense and aid the United States and other nations in training and times of war — a departure from its past pacifist constitution.

Today Japan is threatened by China and a nuclear North Korea.

“Suddenly, a country deeply wedded to pacifism is asking whether it must prepare itself for war” — with much of Japan’s security falling to the United States, columnist Konrad Yakabuski wrote Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

Dennis Halpin, at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said he can’t overemphasize the significance of Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor.

“At a time of increasing tension in East Asia on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait, and in the East and South China Seas, the close cooperation of America’s allies in the region is essential,” Halpin said. “The healing of long-festering WWII history issues, which unlike Europe are not resolved, is a key to this.”

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