A visit by PM Abe to Pearl Harbour would signal Japan's willingness to confront its past
WASHINGTON • Shortly after the White House announced that President Barack Obama would visit the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima next week, chatter began about the possibility of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reciprocating with an equally grand gesture: visiting Pearl Harbour.
Rumours have circulated in Japanese media that Mr Abe could make a visit to the Hawaii memorial some time in November as part of his trip to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.
A US congressman from Hawaii, Mr Mark Takai, subsequently sent an invite to Mr Abe to visit Pearl Harbour for the 75th anniversary of the attack.
"Even as we look back on tragedy, we must also recognise that, over the years, our nation has moved through this tragedy to build a strong alliance with Japan, based on preserving peace and stability in the region since the end of the war," he said in a press release.
For now, however, it remains unclear if such a visit will happen.
Tokyo has played down talk of a Pearl Harbour visit even if it hasn't entirely slammed the door shut.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference that there were no current plans for Mr Abe to make the visit, but he added: "I don't know about the future."
The reticence on such a sensitive topic is perhaps understandable although there are many reasons why a reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbour - this year, especially - would simply make sense.
EMBRACING A DIFFICULT HISTORY
The primary criticism of Japan's efforts to heal wartime rifts with its Asian neighbours is the persistent sense that Tokyo wants to move on without fully embracing its past.
Though Japanese leaders have apologised on several occasions for wartime atrocities, there have also been numerous actions that bring the sincerity of those apologies into question. The four years since Mr Abe took office in 2012 have seen a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine and the curious formation of a government panel in 2013 to re-examine the 1993 apology for the comfort women issue.
There have also been significant steps forward in those four years, including a US$8.3 million (about S$11.5 million) payment to South Korea to set up a foundation for comfort women. Still, a symbolic visit to the scene of Japan's attack on the US would send a very powerful message about Tokyo's willingness to confront its past.
That message is especially important today as Japan seeks a more assertive role for its security forces. Mr Abe has pushed for a reinterpretation of its pacifist Constitution to allow its military to do more than self-defence.
That isn't to suggest a single visit would solve the complicated puzzle that is Japan's relationship with South Korea and China. But it would make the US-Japan relationship a model for how two formerly warring countries can move forward while simultaneously acknowledging their past.
Though not spoken of in similar terms as the scars in North-east Asia, the WWII historical wounds between the US and Japan are deep nevertheless. That no sitting president or prime minister of either country has ever visited the quintessential WWII memorial of the other in the seven decades that passed since the end of the war is illustrative of how taboo the subject has been.
Japan's Emperor Akihito had twice planned to visit Pearl Harbour, in 1994 and 2009, but, on both occasions, political pressure led to him laying wreaths instead at the nearby National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known locally as Punchbowl Cemetery.
On the part of the US, a planned exhibition on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1995 was scrapped after widespread opposition from military veteran groups. Some 81 members of Congress also signed a letter calling for the sacking of the then director of the air and space museum. A scaled-down exhibit was held instead, one that did not show the devastation in Japan. It simply featured a restored fuselage of the plane that carried the bomb, Enola Gay, with some plaques about its role in ending the war.
Mr Obama's visit to Hiroshima thus carries with it significant historic symbolism - an acknowledgement of the past tragedy and a commitment to prevent such a calamity from happening again. It would also go some way towards healing the biggest remaining historical wound between the US and the country it now regards as its most important Asian ally.
Yet, it would feel a little incomplete without a reciprocal visit. The fact is that both sides had their part to play in the conflict and a visit by only one leader would deprive the event of some of its context - like the Smithsonian exhibit that told only one side of the story.
Mr Obama's visit to Hiroshima thus carries with it significant historic symbolism... Yet, it would feel a little incomplete without a reciprocal visit. The fact is that both sides had their part to play in the conflict and a visit by only one leader would deprive the event of some of its context.
THE RIGHT TIME
Beyond the clear strategic benefits of such a visit, there is also the sense that this is the right time for it.
For one thing, that Mr Obama has made the first move provides some valuable political cover domestically for Mr Abe. It would have been significantly more difficult to do if the Abe administration had to be the one to initiate the visit, rather than simply respond to a gesture from a close ally.
The Japanese leader also has the luxury of letting his US counterpart test the waters in terms of what sort of tone to set on such a visit. The current US political climate, combined with Republican characterisations of Mr Obama as an apologist for the country, guarantees that whatever the US leader does in Hiroshima will be picked over with a fine-tooth comb.
US administration officials have repeatedly stressed that nothing in what Mr Obama does there should be construed as an apology. The Japanese can see how all of it is received and then tailor their own visit accordingly.
That this year marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour - and events will likely feature other foreign dignitaries - similarly helps blunt the sharp edge of Mr Abe's presence there.
It is also perhaps worthwhile to note that the gesture Mr Obama is making could be unique to him. Should this window of opportunity close, one might not open up again under a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency.
As his presidency winds down, Mr Obama has clearly sought to make reconciliation a part of his legacy. In the past year alone, the US has moved to mend ties with two long-time foes in Iran and Cuba. Such reconciliation does not seem to be on Mr Trump's radar at the moment, especially given his position that US allies need to start paying more for the defence Americans provide.
Mr Obama's relative youth - he was born 16 years after the end of the war - also leaves him without the baggage that older leaders might feel.
Then there is the matter of the current mindset of the American and Japanese populations. Though there will still be certain quarters that will object to such visits, enough time has lapsed such that the pain of World War II isn't as keenly felt any more.
At the same time, it is also important that the atrocities are not so long gone that the visits become more of an intellectual exercise. A handful of survivors of both the Pearl Harbour attack and the Hiroshima bombing are alive today and they provide an important emotional ballast.
In any case, Mr Obama's impending visit means that US-Japan ties are about to take a historic stride forward. Mr Abe can make it that much more special.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2016, with the headline 'Closing old war wounds between US and Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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