Shinzo Abe will make a historic visit to Pearl Harbor later this month where he will remember the dead of World War Two alongside outgoing US president Barack Obama.
The visit will make Mr Abe the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor since his country’s surprise attack on the Hawaiian port began the Pacific war 75 years ago.
Following Mr Obama’s visit to the atomic bombing site of Hiroshima earlier this year, it will break down one of the last remaining taboos between the US and Japan, symbolising the reconciliation between former enemies who have become close allies.
The visit will also provide a powerful closing scene for Mr Obama’s foreign policy before the inauguration of Donald Trump, highlighting the value of patient diplomacy, and letting him take one last step in his “pivot to Asia”.
Mr Abe will visit Hawaii on December 26 and 27 and hold a summit with Mr Obama. “On this occasion, along with President Obama, I will visit Pearl Harbor,” Mr Abe told reporters at his official residence in Tokyo. “The purpose is to comfort the spirits of the dead.”
He said the visit would show their determination never to repeat the calamity of war. “It will be a chance to show the world the significance of our effort to look to the future and build an even stronger US-Japan alliance,” said Mr Abe. “This final summit is the culmination of all we have done.”
A statement from the White House echoed Mr Abe’s comments, saying: “The two leaders’ visit will showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into the closest of allies, united by common interests and shared values.”
The visit marks another step in Mr Abe’s effort to reconcile his own conservative nationalism — which has occasionally veered into historical revisionism — with his desire to strengthen the US-Japan alliance and settle the ghosts of Japan’s history.
Last year, he referred to Pearl Harbor in a well-received speech to the US Congress, and gave a statement on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end without offending Japan’s neighbours. Mr Abe has landed on a formula where he often talks of his grief and sadness at the events of the war without offering specific apologies.
On this occasion, along with President Obama, I will visit Pearl Harbor. The purpose is to comfort the spirits of the dead
Although Mr Abe declined to pledge a Pearl Harbor trip when Mr Obama went to Hiroshima in May, a reciprocal visit was widely anticipated and has been discussed with US diplomats in the past. The prime minister said Mr Obama’s words at Hiroshima had “entered the hearts of many Japanese people”.
Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife, visited Pearl Harbor in August where she prayed at laid flowers at the USS Arizona memorial. That was widely regarded as a test run for a prime ministerial visit.
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor using carrier-born aircraft sunk four US battleships and damaged four others. Coming without a declaration of war, it prompted US president Franklin D Roosevelt to declare December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”.
But America’s three aircraft carriers were out at sea during the attack and survived, so Japan gained little strategic advantage, leading to its ultimate defeat three-and-a-half years later.
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