WASHINGTON - In a move loaded with symbolism, Mr Shinzo Abe has become the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour.
The visit in Honolulu on Tuesday (Dec 27, Wednesday morning Singapore time) alongside President Barack Obama, came 75 years after Japan’s deadly Dec 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour which sank or badly damaged eight US Pacific Fleet battleships, hundreds of aircraft, and killed 2,403 Americans.
Mr Abe offered his “sincere and everlasting condolences" to the Pearl Habour attack victims, as well as those who were killed in the war.
He added: “We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow we, the people of Japan, have taken."
Mr Obama hailed Mr Abe’s visit a “historic gesture” that was “a reminder that even the deepest wounds of war can give way to friendship and a lasting peace”.
In May, Mr Obama became the first US President to visit Hiroshima, which the United States bombed on Aug 6, 1945 in the first use ever of a nuclear weapon, killing over 150,000 people.
US President-elect Donald Trump has taken a hawkish stand on China. He has also questioned the US’ alliances abroad, including that with Japan, saying often that allies do not do enough in return for the US’ security partnership.
But Japan may be an exception, analysts say.
‘’Japan and the US need each other, and more so than at any other point in the history of the alliance,’’ Mr Harry J. Kazianis, Senior Fellow for Defence Policy at the conservative Centre for the National Interest, told The Straits Times on the phone.
"Japan lives in a pretty rough neighbourhood. To the west is North Korea, plus Japan and the US need each other because of the rising challenge of China. I think the historic and pragmatic are coming together.’’
There were no apologies at either Pearl Harbour or Hiroshima. At the memorial in Pearl Harbour, which was built in 1962 over the wreck of the USS Arizona visible in the water below, Mr Obama and Mr Abe both touched wreaths laid out in front of the wall inscribed with the names of those on the ship who died in the attack, then stood in solemn silence for a minute.
Still, analysts noted the Pearl Harbour visit is a historic step.
Professor Roy Denny, a security specialist and Senior Fellow at the East West Centre in Honolulu, told The Straits Times: "Despite the strength of the alliance, US-Japan reconciliation is not 100 per cent complete. With Abe’s visit it takes another small step in this direction.’’
Mr Mike Honda, 75-year-old Democratic Party Congressman from California, told CNN: "I look at this as a symbolic meeting of two leaders going through the process of reconciliation. But it’s also symbolic that the President visited Hiroshima.’’
The reciprocal visits would help each nation come to terms with some of the atrocities committed during World War II, he said.
The US Ambassador to Tokyo Caroline Kennedy told Fuji TV that Mr Abe’s visit was an "incredibly historic moment" and "a great tribute to the US-Japan alliance."
There are more American soldiers - around 54,000 – based in Japan than in any other foreign country. Their presence at some places, however, has bred resentment with locals.
Mr Abe has also stirred some controversy in the West and in China over what is seen as historical revisionism about Japan’s role in the World War II. Japanese nationalists are a growing force.
But defence cooperation with the US is strengthening. On Nov 28, Japan's Air Self-Defence Force received its first Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter from the US at Luke Air Force Base in Alaska. Japan plans to buy 28 of the planes over the next five years.
‘’Donald Trump will continue to talk about cost sharing, I don’t think that’s going to go away,’’ Mr Kazianis said. "But if we take it at face value that he is a businessman and a pragmatist and maybe a realist on foreign policy issues, then he’s going to see very quickly that the US-Japan alliance is the best deal he’s going to get.’’