The Buzz

Why Shinzo Abe’s Historic Pearl Harbor Visit Is a Very Big Deal

Strolling through the stately ivory edifice of the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, one inevitably catches an unmistakable whiff of petroleum riding the halcyon ocean breeze of the Pacific. The waft of petroleum arises from the tears of Arizona, the driblets of oil leaking from the USS Arizona since it was sunk by the Japanese bombardment on December 7, 1941. Here, time has stopped indefinitely, and the memorial offers visitors a silent, yet arresting reminder of the geopolitical struggle that once unfolded across the Pacific.

This week, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe will become the nation’s first incumbent leader to visit this memorial along with the outgoing U.S. president Barack Obama. Naturally, expectations have grown high on both sides of the Pacific for mutual reconciliation following Obama’s Hiroshima visit earlier this year. Apart from such obvious symbolism, Abe’s upcoming visit will be a milestone in the evolution of the longest bilateral alliance since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Because the memories of Pearl Harbor have largely shaped U.S.-Japan relations since 1945, he has a historic opportunity to consolidate Tokyo’s emerging role in the alliance by parting with the legacies of the past.

The Specter of Pearl Harbor:

In fact, Pearl Harbor is in many ways the origin of the U.S.-Japan alliance forged against the backdrop of Imperial Japan’s defeat. Prior to 1941, the two countries were bitter geopolitical rivals vying for the control of the Western Pacific. In fact, when the pro-U.S. Provisional Government of Hawaii was established in 1893, Imperial Japan intervened by sending warships to Pearl Harbor in protest. Given the two countries’ imperial ambitions, the Pacific War was all but inevitable and ended their geopolitical competition with Japan’s unconditional surrender to the status of Washington’s de facto protectorate ushered by General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation project of democratization and demilitarization. As the Korean War threatened the future of the democratic, yet emasculated postwar Japan, Washington’s solution was one of compromise: transformation of the defeated nation into Asia’s anti-communist bulwark by sponsoring Tokyo’s partial remilitarization under a military alliance.

Washington’s about-face was not without controversy. In fact, deep seated suspicion of Japan’s militarist revival long persisted in the minds of many Americans. No less a figure than the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, Edwin O. Reischauer, lamented the fragile foundation of the fledgling alliance in 1953: “During the twentieth century as a whole, no country has more consistently regarded itself as in essential conflict with the United States than has Japan, and no country has been more uniformly looked upon as a potential enemy by Americans, the burden of proof, perhaps, should rest on those who assume Japanese-American friendship, rather than those who expect the contrary.” Even almost half a century after Reischauer’s lamentation, Lt. General Henry Stackpole, the then-commander of U.S. Marines in Okinawa, once described the alliance as the “cork in the bottle” of Japan’s potential militarist atavism while other skeptics like George Friedman prognosticated that Washington and Tokyo would once again be on a collision course absent the common Soviet threat.