JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM – President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid somber tribute here Tuesday to the American service members killed in a surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy 75 years ago.
The two leaders, dressed in dark suits and ties, presented wreaths and bowed their heads in silent respect during a brief tour of the USS Arizona Memorial that commemorates the U.S. sailors and Marines who perished on the battleship on Dec. 7, 1941. President Roosevelt had called it “a date which will live in infamy.”
In public remarks afterward, Obama and Abe reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance, calling it the bedrock of security and prosperity in Asia. Obama declared the “hallowed harbor” stands as a symbol not just of the valor of the Americans who fought to defend it, but also of the power of reconciliation between former enemies. It was a message, he suggested, that remains as resonant today as over the past seven decades.
“It is here we remember that even when hatred burns the hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is the most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward; we must resist the urge to demonize those who are different,” Obama said. “The sacrifice made here, the anguish of war, reminds us to seek that divine spark that is common to all humanity.”
Abe did not apologize for Japan’s actions, but he offered his “sincere and everlasting condolences” to the souls of those who died, and he pledged that Japan would remain on a peaceful path.
“We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow we the people of Japan have taken,” Abe said, speaking mostly in Japanese.
The visit marked the first by a Japanese leader to the memorial, which was built in 1962 over the submerged remains of the battleship that was sunk during the attack. In all, 2,403 Americans died in the attack and another 1,178 were wounded. The United States declared war on Japan the following day, marking the nation’s formal entry into World War II.
At one point, Obama and Abe stood in a well of the memorial overlooking the battleship and each tossed a handful of flower petals over the railing. U.S. Navy personnel in dress white uniforms accompanied them, along with senior aides and a small contingent of reporters.
Obama praised the “greatest generation” that served in the war, including his maternal grandfather and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. The longtime senator, who died in 2012, served with fellow Japanese-Americans in the highly decorated 442nd infantry at a time when the United States jailed many Japanese and Japanese-Americans in internment camps.
“Here at Pearl Harbor, where America fought its first battle of Second World War, it roused a nation,” Obama said. “Here in so many ways America came of age.”
Abe thanked the United States for helping rebuild Japan after the devastation of the war, noting that Americans sent food and clothing to the Japanese people. He said that after he arrived in Hawaii on Monday he visited a stone marker for a fallen Japanese pilot – an impromptu gravesite made by American service members.
“We are allies that will tackle together, to greater degree than ever before, the challenges across the globe,” Abe said. The Japanese leader has been eager to establish a relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, who has questioned the costs of the U.S. military-basing agreements in Japan and South Korea.
Among the shared goals, Obama said, was “slowing the spread of nuclear weapons,” a message that contrasted with Trump’s recent suggestion that he is open to increasing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Japanese leaders had avoided paying homage at Pearl Harbor over right-wing opposition back home. Abe decided the time was right after Obama’s visit in May to Hiroshima, where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945 to help end the war, was well received by the Japanese public.
The morning attack on the U.S. military base in 1941 by the Japanese imperial navy caught American commanders by surprise. But the Japanese government has insisted that Tokyo had not intended it as a sneak attack. Rather, a cable notifying the United States military of the attack was delayed due to “bureaucratic bungling,” said Tamaki Tsukada, spokesman for the Japanese embassy in Washington, said ahead of Abe’s visit.
“There’s this sense of guilt, if you like, among Japanese, this ‘Pearl Harbor syndrome,’ that we did something very unfair,” Tsukada said. He added that the prime minister’s visit could help “absolve that kind of complex that Japanese people have.”
After speaking, the Obama and Abe greeted several World War II veterans dressed in flowered Hawaiian shirts. Japanese singer and film and television actor Ryotaro Sugi was at the event as well.
Among those in attendance were Everette Hylland, 93, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Domingo Los Banos, 91, a Hawaii-born U.S. Army veteran who enlisted at 19.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Los Banos said of Abe’s visit. “It’s time that all nations put away the atomic bomb. I congratulate Japan for doing that and I’m happy the prime minister is here.”
Obama flashed a traditional Hawaiian “shaka” sign, a gesture of friendship, before departing.