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Japanese relieved at no Pearl Harbor apology

Julian Ryall Tokyo
December 28, 2016

Abe's Pearl Harbor speech has been well received in Japan, where most people expressed the opinion that it struck the right balance of regret that the Pacific war occurred, but offered no apologies. Julian Ryall reports.

USA Barack Obama und Shinzo Abe auf dem USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Kaster

Shinzo Abe paid a historic visit to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, with the Japanese prime minister expressing his "sincere and everlasting condolences" to the more than 2,400 US service personnel and the 64 Japanese killed in the December 7, 1941, attack on America's most important Pacific naval base. The PM vowed to "never repeat the horrors of war."

Abe also offered his condolences to "the spirits of the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place, and also to the souls of the countless innocent people who became victims of the war."

Standing alongside President Barack Obama just after the two leaders had laid wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial, Abe used his speech to emphasize the strides that two nations that were enemies have made in the last 75 years as allies and vowed "We must never repeat the horrors of war again."

Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii Abe Obama
Since the war, the two countries became close allies in a partnership that strengthened during Obama's leadershipImage: Reuters/K. Lamyrque

Following Obama's lead

"Essentially, Abe has followed the lead from his address to the US Congress in May of last year and then President Obama's speech in Hiroshima in May this year," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"There are condolences and expressions of hopes for a better future and vows to cement the security relationship still further," he told DW. "And in that sense, Abe never said anything that he didn't believe it." (sic)

"And I am sure that there are some in the US who will be offended that he did not offer an outright apology for what happened in 1941, in just the same way that there were some in Japan who were angry that Obama did not apologize when he visited Hiroshima," he said. "But for people who are not interested in continuing the recriminations but are instead interested in the future of the Japan-US alliance, Abe gave them what they wanted."

The overwhelming sense is that the Japanese leader would very much like the two visits to mark the end of an era in which, in his opinion, too much time was spent looking back on history and too little time invested in building on a relationship that is critically important to the shared security and economic futures of the two nations.

The scars remain

"For some people, what happened will never be over, but it will not be too long before they are gone and nobody will have first-hand memories," said Okumura. "Perhaps these two addresses have gone a long way to cauterizing the wounds, even if the scars remain."

USA Abe gedenkt als erster japanischer Regierungschef der Opfer von Pearl Harbor
Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to visit the USS Arizona MemorialImage: picture alliance/Kyodo

There are some on the most conservative fragments of Japanese society who expressed relief at the contents of Abe's speech, saying they had been concerned that he might use the occasion to apologize.

Hiromichi Moteki, acting chairman of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, said Abe's comments had been "appropriate" and that he was "relieved" the prime minister had gone no further.

"Why should Abe apologize?" he asked. "For the prime minister to apologize would be a distortion of history, because Japan's view of history is still strongly influenced by the outcome of the Tokyo war trials, that Japan was the aggressor and in the wrong."

Moteki insists that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was not the start of the war with America as hostilities had effectively commenced in July, when Washington imposed crippling economic sanctions on Tokyo.

He is also angered at suggestions that Japan carried out a "sneak attack" against the US in Hawaii and insists that the failure to deliver a declaration of war to the US government until after the attack had commenced was simply a result of the "ineffectiveness" of Foreign Ministry officials.

'Deceived' and 'brainwashed'

And he is similarly angry at a left-wing media at home that paints Japan as the aggressor which, combined with an education system that has "deceived" generations of young Japanese, means that people here have been "brainwashed" into believing the narrative put forward by the Allies after Japan's surrender.

The Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact is consistent in its positions on many of the key events in the Asia-Pacific region in the early decades of the last century.

Pearl Harbour Hawaii
More than 2,400 US service personnel were killed in the Pearl Harbor attackImage: Getty Images/Keystone

After exhaustive research, Moteki says, the society has determined that China triggered the Sino-Japanese war in August 1937, there was no massacre of civilians in Nanking four months later and "comfort women" were willing and well-paid professional prostitutes.

Equally, annexation of the Korean Peninsula was "inevitable" because the kingdom was unable to maintain its independence, while the Korean people flourished under benevolent Japanese rule.

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing stages of the conflict, on the other hand, were war crimes and the US should have been prosecuted, he insists.

"There is a need for a correct view of history if Japan is to go forward in its relationships with other countries," Moteki said.

Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that "Going to Pearl Harbor and wanting to completely clear its accounts in the history of World War II is wishful thinking."

"Don't forget the main battlefield of the world's anti-fascist war in the east was in China, and that the Chinese people made a huge national sacrifice to the world's victory in the anti-fascist war. Without reconciliation with China and other victimized Asian countries, Japan would never be able to turn this page."


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