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A Japanese prime minister is visiting Pearl Harbor for the first time ever

G7 Japan 2016 Ise-Shima - Day 1
Obama and Abe.
(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Japan’s hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is doing something no Japanese premier has ever done: visiting Pearl Harbor.

Abe announced the surprise trip during a press conference on Monday. He will be in Hawaii December 26 and 27 along with President Obama. The visit, Abe said, will be aimed at “comfort[ing] the souls of the victims” and sending “a message about the value of US-Japanese reconciliation.”

The fact that no prime minister before Abe has done this is a testament to just how fraught the memories of World War II remain, in both Japanese and American eyes. The fact that that’s changing now shows the strength of the US-Japanese relationship today.

“It's good news,” Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth who studies apologies in East Asian diplomacy, tells me. “French, Americans, [and] Germans have been remembering war together at Normandy since 2004. It's a sign of reconciliation and commitment that the US and Japan relationship has reached this point too.”

It’s also a telling move from a prime minister who, by Japanese standards, is a fairly aggressive nationalist — yet has shown, in recent years, a canny capacity to use historical memory to improve Japanese relations with key powers.

Why no Japanese leader has yet visited Pearl Harbor

The Attack 1941 On Pearl Harbor
A photo from the day of the Pearl Harbor attack.
(Getty Images)

American and Japanese citizens see the Pearl Harbor attacks very differently. Americans generally remember it as an unprovoked act of aggression by a vicious totalitarian power, or a war crime akin to 9/11.

Japanese citizens, by contrast, tend to see it as a tragic result of failed diplomacy between the two countries — one that would culminate in the much more terrible (from their point of view) atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The history curriculum in Japanese secondary schools mostly focuses on the views of the Japanese military and the subsequent impact of the attack on Japan,” writes Yujin Yaguchi, a University of Tokyo historian who studies Japan’s views of Pearl Harbor, in a 2011 piece published by History News Network.

“For Japanese teachers [Yaguchi spoke with], Pearl Harbor was almost naturally connected with Hiroshima and Nagasaki because both were testaments to the horror and folly of fighting wars.”

From the Japanese point of view, the Pearl Harbor attack isn’t so special — it’s one of many terrible things that happened during World War II, and not even the most significant one. “It is as if Pearl Harbor is so sensitive an issue that the US and Japan can’t see eye to eye, even after more than a half century of strong political and military alliance as well as close cultural relations,” Yaguchi writes.

In the past, Japanese leaders — particularly those on the right, like Abe — have been reluctant to take a conciliatory stance on World War II. In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, left-wing legislators proposed a resolution apologizing for Japan’s role in the war. Abe’s center-right party, the LDP, blocked the bill, with many walking out of the vote in protest.

Since winning the premiership in 2012, Abe has shown every sign of sharing this attitude. He has repeatedly tried to move Japan away from its postwar pacifist stance, including (among other things) revising the government’s view of its constitution to weaken its commitment to pacifism. He referred to Japan’s profound national regret surrounding World War II, specifically, as “masochism.” in 2013, he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine to Japanese war dead, an act that both South Korean and Chinese officials denounced as paying homage to midcentury war criminals.

Why Abe may have changed his mind about visiting

Japanese Watch As Abe Reads Out WWII Statement Before The WWII Surrender Anniversary
Abe gives a World War II anniversary statement on national TV.
(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

So Abe choosing to visit Pearl Harbor — specifically as an homage to the American “victims” — is a pretty striking about-face. What’s going on?

For one thing, the Pearl Harbor visit is an act of reciprocity. Earlier this year, President Obama visited Hiroshima, the first American president ever to do so. Obama gave a speech expressing sympathy with the victims of the atomic bombing, but did not formally apologize for President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb.

Abe appears to be returning the favor almost exactly, taking a historically significant trip that recognizes American pain but stopping just shy of formal apology. He’s repaying Obama, and the United States more broadly, for its willingness to recognize the Japanese experience of the war.

More broadly, Abe has demonstrated a surprisingly flexible approach to using apology and history as a tool of statecraft.

The legacy of World War II severely complicates relations between Japan, South Korea, and China. Sometimes it’s the result of a simple failure to apologize on Japan’s part; other times, it’s a result of differing perceptions of the same historical site or event. Regardless, this can lead to tremendous public pressure against closer relations between the states.

Abe has, in the two years or so, been willing to accommodate these sentiments in order to advance Japan’s national interest — moving past the more strident nationalism that long characterized his politics.

“As one of his people puts it, rather condescendingly, Mr. Abe has recently grown up as a politician — that is, his political head has overridden his heart,” the Economist wrote last August. It gives some specific examples:

In July, Chinese forced in the war to labour for Mitsubishi accepted an apology and compensation from the Japanese conglomerate — a first. And though South Korea had at first objected to Japan’s application for world-heritage status from UNESCO for a remarkable set of Meiji-era sites that were vital to Japan’s early industrialisation—Koreans had later been forced to work at some of them, including on Hashima island with its coal mine, above — the two countries negotiated a deal. Japan acknowledged the forced labour, and South Korea backed the successful bid.

In December last year, Abe’s government went even further, apologizing to South Korea for Japan’s forcible conscription of Korean women as sex slaves for its soldiers during World War II (the so-called “comfort women.”) Japan issued a formal statement and paid about $8.3 million into a fund for the victims who survived.

The logic here, on Abe’s part, is that taking a hard line on history isn’t worth the hit to present-day Japanese interests. And that appears to be what’s at work in the Pearl Harbor visit: Abe is using historical memory to smooth over relations with a key partner state, a move that seems especially smart given that Japan skeptic Donald Trump is the next American president.

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