As the Japanese and American flags stood side by side, fluttering in gusty trade winds, Shinzo Abe – the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit the USS Arizona Memorial to Pearl Harbor – offered his “sincere and everlasting condolences” for the attack that killed more than 2,400 Americans and prompted the US to enter the second world war.
Standing next to US president Barack Obama he solemnly vowed that Japan “must never repeat the horrors of war again”.
On a historic, warm, December day, that will likely be their last official meeting, both men spoke of the power of reconciliation and the strength of the US-Japanese alliance.
Standing on Kilo Pier before the USS Arizona Memorial —one of the most powerful symbols of modern battle — and a monument to war and loss, Abe made the case for peace.
“As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place … We must never repeat the horrors of war again.”
Abe continued: “We, the people of Japan, will continue to uphold this unwavering principle, while harboring quiet pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation over these 70 years since the war ended.”
Just as Obama did not offer an apology when he became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial in May, Abe did not explicitly apologise but instead repeatedly spoke of reconciliation and what he called an alliance of hope between the two countries.
President Obama followed Abe’s remarks, saying the US-Japan alliance was “a reminder that the deepest wounds of war can give way.”
As he described laying flower wreathes on “waters that still weep,” Obama paid tribute to the “more than 2,400 patriots — fathers, husbands, wives and daughters manning heaven’s rails for all eternity.”
Obama’s statements weren’t confined to messages of reconciliation. He also reflected on “how war tests our most enduring values,” stating that even as Japanese-Americans were deprived of their own liberty during the war, they served the United States military with distinction.
Among a gathering that included staid suited Japanese dignitaries and officials, active duty US military members, second world war veterans and their families, was congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, a fourth-generation Japanese-American.Both of her grandfathers were sent to internment camps and she had an uncle who was killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Hanabusa said the most important thing about the visit was that both Abe and Obama were physically present together.
“The lesson from all this, was that we do not forget the past … but we have to move ahead,” Hanabusa said. “For us to all collectively survive in the Asia-Pacific region, we need have to have an understanding of both the roles in the past and the roles in the future.”
Also in attendance were three Pearl Harbor survivors, now in their nineties and cheerfully dressed in bright green, red and white Hawaiian aloha shirts. One of the survivors was 95-year-old Sterling R Cale who recalled the morning of the attack.
Enlisted in the navy at the time, Cale said that on the morning of 7 December 1941 he had just finished night duty at the shipyard dispensary and was heading home when he looked up at the sky. “The planes were already diving. I saw one of the planes turn around — the rising sun on the fuselage. ‘My god! Those are Japanese planes,’” he recalled saying.
He and others broke down the door of the armory and rushed to hand out single-shot rifles to anyone able to help defend the base. Cale remembers spending four hours pulling 46 men, some already dead, from the water.
Seventy-five years on, Cale was not asking for an apology from the Japanese prime minister. The fact that Abe came to Pearl Harbor, he said, was enough.
“He might say ‘we’re sorry.’ So what?… I say the action is better than saying anything because it actually means they’re sorry,” then, speaking in Japanese, Cale asked, “wakarimasuka?” — do you understand?
Cale was one of three Pearl Harbor survivors present, all of whom Abe shook hands with and embraced.
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Honolulu-based think tank, called Abe’s visit a “big deal” that signified an eagerness to close the door on the postwar-era, but added that Japan must make similar gestures to its Asian neighbours if it is to “play the role to which it aspires in Asia and the world.”