By Reiji Yoshida and Ayako Mie. Published in The Japan Times.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a historic speech in Pearl Harbor touting the postwar reconciliation between the U.S. and Japan on Tuesday, alongside U.S. President Barack Obama.
But reconciliation between the two countries — close military allies since the beginning of the Cold War — is nothing new, and a key message hidden in the speeches of both leaders addresses something other than World War II, according to two experts interviewed by The Japan Times.
“I think both Japan and America wanted to send a message to (President-elect Donald) Trump,” Carol Gluck, professor of history at Columbia University and specialist in modern Japan studies, said in a phone interview.
“This is a very firm alliance and do not mess with it. That’s what they are saying,” Gluck said.
Trump has pledged to shake up issues central to Obama’s legacy, and during the campaign he even threatened to withdraw the U.S. military from Japan if Tokyo refuses to pay for its full cost.
“I think Obama and Abe are both concerned that Trump might endanger what the bilateral alliance has built up so far. They need to deal with Trump on that common ground,” said Mikio Haruna, visiting professor of journalism at Waseda University and an expert in international relations.
In his speech, Abe emphasized that Japan has “resolutely upheld our vow never again to wage war.” But he stopped short of apologizing for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago.
Gluck said whether Abe would make an apology was not a major political issue because Obama didn’t apologize when he visited Hiroshima in May and met victims of the U.S. atomic bombing on that city.
“Apology is besides the point. Neither country is going to apologize for an act of war. That’s not in the cards,” Gluck said.
Instead, Abe praised “the importance of tolerance and the power of reconciliation,” adding that the two countries “are allies that will tackle together to an even greater degree than ever before the many challenges covering the globe.”
Indeed, Abe urgently needs to tackle a number of security issues with the help of U.S. military forces, such as North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program and the growing military clout of China in both the East and South China seas.
Meanwhile, Obama appears desperate to cement his legacy before leaving office next month.
In May, Obama visited Hiroshima as the first sitting American president to attend an official commemoration ceremony there. The U.S. reportedly requested that Abe visit Pearl Harbor in return.
Abe decided to go to Pearl Harbor in December, with only three weeks of Obama’s presidency remaining.
Haruna believes it would be difficult for Trump to drastically change the Japan-U.S. military alliance, given his apparent strategy of keeping China in check by improving America’s relationship with Russia.
To take a tough stance against China, the U.S. would have no choice but to rely heavily on Japan, the main military ally for the U.S. in Asia, Haruna said.
Still, details of the diplomatic vision of Trump and his aides remain unclear or unknown, which has considerably increased uncertainty in Japan.
This is a key reason Abe decided to go to Pearl Harbor — to reaffirm Japan’s alliance with the U.S. before Trump takes office, Haruna said.
Abe likely wants to put an end to Japan’s historical issues related to World War II with the visit. But Japan still has a number of ongoing issues with China as well as the Koreas, Haruna said.
“Japan and the United States have never had a history problem when it comes to World War II. No one in Japan has denied the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Columbia University’s Gluck said.
“They may explain it or justify it, but no one has revised (the interpretation of) the Pacific War. All of the revisionism (in Japan) has been directed to the Asia part,” she said.
Abe has said he will maintain key government apologies for Japan’s aggression in other parts of Asia and the use of “comfort women,” who were forced to serve in Japanese wartime military brothels.
But earlier, Abe had indicated that he might retract those official statements, drawing strong criticism both at home and abroad.
Beijing appears ready to continue accusing Japan of not extending sufficient apologies for Japan’s wartime misdeeds.
“I’m afraid that only Japan believes that it can settle accounts with the history of World War II by merely consoling the souls of victims in Pearl Harbor,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said during a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
“Do not forget that China was the major theater in the east of the global anti-Fascist war which saw huge national sacrifices made by the Chinese people,” Chunying said. “Without peace reconciliation with China and other victimized countries in Asia, Japan can never leave this part of history behind.”