Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan (Liberal Democratic Party) soberly remembers the lessons of Pearl Harbor: A surprise attack can strike a devastating blow.
By announcing his intentions, on the night of Dec. 5 in Tokyo, to pay respect to the dead in Hawaii this month, he effectively killed off all debate on a strongly opposed and controversial casino bill being pushed through Japan’s parliament at the moment. It’s a safe bet the mainstream media and the de facto LDP-controlled state media NHK will capture all eyes pontificating on this and U.S.-Japan relations while the casino legislation goes forward. It was passed through a committee under the noses of the Japanese media, who admittedly were caught off guard.
Abe told a group of reporters at his office Monday night that he will visit Pearl Harbor with President Barack Obama at the end of the month.
For Abe, the visit serves four purposes. It shows that Japan values its alliance with the U.S. before the possibly Japan-hostile Trump administration takes over. It shows he is, at least on the surface, sorry for Japan’s aggression in World War II. It allows him to take his place in history as the first sitting Japanese prime minister to officially visit Pearl Harbor, just as Obama, in May, was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima.
But it also serves to distract public debate about the casino laws being rushed into place. More than half of Japanese surveyed oppose the introduction of casinos, believing it is not in the public interest. Last Friday, legislation to legalize them in Japan passed a lower-house committee after just six hours of debate. The Mainich Newspaper wrote that even the LDP’s coalition partner party, Komeito, was caught off guard. Japan’s mainstream media felt like it had been sucker-punched and condemned the move in blistering editorials. In addition to criticism of the casino laws, the failure of his administration to allow the ailing emperor of Japan to abdicate the throne in a timely or considerate fashion has raised hackles. But with the surprise announcement, for a time, Abe’s “historic” visit will occupy Japan’s political reporters. And the casino bills will probably slip past and be made into law with minimal scrutiny.
In Japan, timing is everything. This is why prosecutors leaked their decision not to charge TEPCO utility executives for criminal negligence for the Fukushima nuclear disaster on the same day that Japan won the 2020 Summer Olympics bid. No one is more adept at burying a story than Japanese authorities.
There were, of course, hints the visit would take place, dating back to Obama’s Hiroshima visit, and this August when Abe’s much-liked wife, Akie, traveled to Hawaii. She posted on Facebook that she had visited the memorial to the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor and offered prayers and flowers. The gesture was reasonably well-received.
Speaking to reporters at the prime minister's office, Abe said his visit was intended “to console the souls of the victims (giseisha)” in Pearl Harbor. His use of the word giseisha is wonderfully vague—it not only refers to the U.S. soldiers killed, but it also the Japanese soldiers that died in the battle. NHK, the public broadcaster that has become the propaganda machine of the Abe administration, reported that he would mourn “those killed in the battle, who were centrally American.” In other words, Abe will get to have his cake and eat it too. There will be a non-apology apology in which Abe will probably intone that the tragedy of war should never be repeated. Will he specifically acknowledge Japan started the war? Judging by his 70th-anniversary speech, probably not. NHK also referred to the attack on Pearl Harbor obliquely as “the incident which became the origin of the war (against the Allies).”
“We must never repeat the horrors of war,” Abe said at the press conference Monday evening. “I want future generations to understand this. I also want to make this an opportunity to communicate the value of the reconciliation between Japan and the United States.” He also said he wants his meeting with Obama to be a chance to show to the world his resolve to maintain and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. President-elect Donald Trump’s comments that Japan wasn’t pulling its weight in the current Japan-U.S. alliance and should bear a larger financial and military burden have shaken the Japanese public and political sphere. They may have also contributed to a slight rise in Abe’s popularity.
Abe said he had been considering a visit to Pearl Harbor since the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. He asserted that he and Obama made the decision to visit the site together when they met in Lima in November. The talk with Obama came after just after Abe’s face-to-face session with President-elect Donald Trump in New York.