Japanese PM’s Pearl Harbor visit aims to cement US-Japan ties

Shinzo Abe wants to be crucial ally in region despite Trump rhetoric on China


Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s highly symbolic visit to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday was touted as an emblem of the closeness between Japan and the US, coming half a year after Barack Obama made a historic trip to Hiroshima.

Yet as the Japanese and US leaders prepared to honour the 2,403 Americans who lost their lives in the 1941 surprise attack that propelled the US into the second world war, uncertainties cloud the future of the partnership.

US president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign comments raised doubts about his commitment to US postwar alliances, as he complained about the cost of US military support and vowed to tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Mr Abe and Mr Obama advocated.

Mr Abe visited Mr Trump in November seeking clarity about his intentions, emerging from the meeting to declare him a “trustworthy leader”.

“This is a time when the alliance has never been stronger” between the two countries, said Jennifer Lind, professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. “The big question is Trump’s Asia policy and Trump’s China policy. I don’t think we know. He campaigned as if he were someone who did not value the US-led order in Asia.”


On Tuesday, Mr Abe was due to be the first Japanese leader to visit the USS Arizona memorial, completed in 1961. Some 1,177 of the 1,400 sailors on board the battleship died in Japan’s attack. It was initially thought Mr Abe would be the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor but records emerged of a private visit by former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida in 1951.

Significantly, Mr Abe was to be the first leader to visit since the revival of nationalism made all expressions of Japanese remorse and culpability controversial at home. It is the latest effort by Mr Abe to settle the ghosts of Japan’s second world war history, strengthen the US-Japan alliance and “look to the future”.

He referred to Pearl Harbor in a well-received speech to the US Congress last year and navigated a statement on the war’s 70th anniversary without causing new offence to Japan’s neighbours. In May he accompanied Mr Obama to the site of the first atomic bombing in Hiroshima, where the US president said nuclear-armed nations should pursue a world without the weapons.

Mr Abe will probably be the last foreign leader to hold a bilateral meeting with Mr Obama before he leaves office. However, his visit is as much about trying to make a point to the incoming Trump administration as it is about cementing ties with Mr Obama.

Mr Trump has a long record of scepticism about Japan that goes back to the trade disputes of the 1980s and has consistently called on Tokyo to spend more on its own defence to reduce the burden on the US. During the election campaign, he suggested he would be willing to downgrade the US-Japan alliance.

Harder line

But with Mr Trump also pledging to take a harder line with China on economic and security issues, he could find Mr Abe’s Japan becomes a crucial ally. Not only is it central to the American military presence in the region, but it is pushing for closer ties with the US at a time when some of Washington’s other alliances in the region are in trouble - from the disputes with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, to the political turmoil in South Korea. China is also pursuing a more aggressive stance in the East and South China Seas.

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mr Trump had toned down some of his rhetoric on US-Japan relations since the campaign , and that Mr Trump’s key foreign policy appointees were likely to value strong alliances.

Mr Abe will not apologise for the Pearl Harbor attack while in Hawaii, in keeping with his past statements on the war. The prime minister has evolved a formula whereby he often talks of his grief and sadness at the events of the war without offering specific apologies.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)