I was very moved—and unexpectedly so—by the remarks that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered at Pearl Harbor last month on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day FDR said would “live in infamy,” the day that Japan bombed our naval base in Hawaii in a surprise attack that took the lives of 2,403 Americans and left another 1,178 seriously wounded.
Pearl Harbor was a watchword for perfidy in my parents’ home. My father would never have considered buying a Japanese car because, as he repeated to me a thousand times, to do so—in his mind, at least—would have been to betray the memory of the thousand-odd American servicemen whose remains rest, even today, inside the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona on the floor of the sea. And to do business with their murderers—my father was not one to mince his words—merely because we are technically speaking no longer at war with Japan was simply not something my Dad was prepared to do or would ever have considered doing.
My father once commented to me that 12-07-41 was the 11-22-63 of his generation, the day that everybody always recalled, that no one forgot, that even decades later could prompt any American adult alive at the time to say exactly where he or she was when news of the attack came over the radio. I can see that and, indeed, it’s hard to think of a period of just a few days that changed the history of the world as conclusively as the ones following the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, Japan declared war on the United States and the U.K., and also invaded British Malaya and Thailand. The next day, the United States and the U.K. declared war on Japan. The day after that, China declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which was followed later that same day by the United States declaring war on Germany and Italy. Within four or five days, the fate of the world was materially altered from what might have been to what eventually was. But although there is surely some truth to the theory that Germany might well have won the war in Europe if our nation hadn’t ever joined the fray—and thus that, at least in some convoluted way, the Jews in Europe who survived wouldn’t have escaped the Nazis had the Japanese not forcefully and violently brought the U.S. into the war—that was not how Pearl Harbor was remembered in my parents’ home. It was, in both my parents’ estimation, an act first and foremost of unprovoked barbarian butchery, a day of infamy and perfidy that should live on forever as an example to future generations of why the American military simply cannot be too strong…or too prepared. To find a silver lining in the horror by drawing some sort of direct line between Pearl Harbor and V-E Day would have struck my father as beyond grotesque.
So that was the background I brought to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, which was, of course, intended to complement—and also to compliment—President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last May. (To review my thoughts about that visit, click here.) Technically speaking, each man was walking in at least some of his predecessors’ footprints. President Obama was preceded at Hiroshima by Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office, but no sitting president had ever gone. Prime Minister Abe was following in the footsteps of the three of his predecessors (including his own grandfather) who had previously visited the memorial at Pearl Harbor, but those three visits all took place in the 1950s, and none was made in the company of an American president. Both men’s visits were, therefore, not something unprecedented but nevertheless something new.
No one apologized for anything. President Obama spoke eloquently and movingly at Hiroshima, but his speech was crafted specifically to make it impossible for anyone to construe his remarks as an admission of guilt. Indeed, a neutral listener who didn’t know who actually dropped those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have found out by listening, even carefully, to the President’s comments. (You can decide for yourself by clicking here.) Nor did Prime Minister Abe apologize, not even obliquely.
And so was the stage set by the President and the Prime Minister for a new way to think both about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor—as each other’s moral equivalents, as bookend events not because one initiated the war between Japan and the United States and the other ended it, but because, presumably, both were ghastly acts that seemed justified at the time but now, after all these years, we can see for the acts of barbarism they truly were.
Does that sound right to you? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they wanted to guarantee that the United States would not interfere in the establishment of an empire that already included most of China and all of Korea, but which they clearly intended eventually to include all of southeastern Asia, presumably including Australia and New Zealand, regardless of whether the lands on the “to be conquered” list were independent nations or overseas territories of the U.S. or any of its allies. Indeed, on the same day that those 353 Japanese fighter planes and bombers attacked Hawaii, the Japanese also launched air attacks against the American-held territories of Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and against the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. So there really wasn’t any ambiguity about the point of the attack. At least, Prime Minister Abe didn’t fall back on the traditional argument that the attack was justified by the oil embargo placed on Japan by the U.S., the U.K., and Holland in the wake of the “protective” Japanese occupation of French Indochina and by FDR’s decision to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States, particularly given the fact that the attack occurred while negotiations between the U.S. and Japan were ongoing. On the other hand, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended not to initiate a war, but to end one. And, for better or worse, it worked: Japan offered to surrender conditionally the day following Nagasaki, and then finally surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945, a mere six days after the bombs fell on August 6 and 9.
All that being the case, I was completely primed to be offended by Prime Minister Abe’s remarks…and, even more so, by the expectation that they would somehow end up equating Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima as gigantic errors perpetrated by similarly benighted parties unable to understand the depths of their own moral depravity. But that wasn’t how I responded, and no one was more surprised by that than I!
Abe spoke from the heart, and these were his opening remarks:
Even 75 years later, the USS Arizona, now at rest atop the seabed, is the final resting place for a tremendous number of sailors and marines. Listening again as I focus my senses, alongside the song of the breeze and the rumble of the rolling waves, I can almost discern the voices of those crewmen. Voices of lively conversations, upbeat and at ease, on that day, on a Sunday morning. Voices of young servicemen talking to each other about their futures and dreams. Voices calling out the names of loved ones in their very final moments. Voices praying for the happiness of children still unborn. Each and every one of those servicemen had a mother and a father anxious about his safety. Many had wives and girlfriends they loved. And many must have had children they would have loved to watch grow up. All of that was brought to an end. When I contemplate that solemn reality, I am rendered entirely speechless. “Rest in peace, precious souls of the fallen.” With that overwhelming sentiment, I cast flowers on behalf of Japanese people, upon the waters where those sailors and marines sleep.
By framing his remarks as a kind of eulogy for the dead, he struck a note that I found deeply resonant. Like President Obama, Shinzo Abe was born years after the war. He hardly had to note that he had personally played no role in the deaths of the thousands of Americans who died at Pearl Harbor, but that he chose to begin his remarks by focusing solely on the dead themselves—and that he signaled his personal understanding of the depth of tragedy that their loss entailed not solely for their nation but for their own families, for their own people—that seemed to me precisely the right note to strike.
And then he went on to talk neither about blame nor guilt, but about reconciliation as a sacred undertaking, as the almost holy framework—he didn’t use religious language in his remarks but that’s somehow how I heard them—in which enemies can turn from enmity to live in peace. He observed, entirely correctly, that his nation and ours cannot be compared in terms of the challenge this prospect of reconciliation posed in 1945. Japan lay in ruins, its economy in tatters and its right to a place among its former enemies in the forum of nations uncertain even to its own citizenry. It did not take much, therefore, for the Japanese to yearn for reconciliation. But it did for our nation. We were the victors, they the vanquished. We dictated the terms of surrender and we had it in our power to make Japan a vassal state, to deny it a place in the world community of post-war nations, to find in the national humiliation of the Japanese a way to see a brighter future for our nation and for the world. But we did not take any of those paths forward.
Abe said this as well:
The Japanese people managed to survive and make their way toward the future thanks to the sweaters and milk sent by the American people. And it was the United States that opened up the path for Japan to return to the international community once more after the war. Under the leadership of the United States, Japan, as a member of the free world, was able to enjoy peace and prosperity. The goodwill and assistance you extended to us Japanese, the enemy you had fought so fiercely, together with the tremendous spirit of tolerance were etched deeply into the hearts and minds of our grandfathers and mothers. We also remember them. Our children and grandchildren will also continue to pass these memories down and never forget what you did for us.
I found those words moving and satisfying, partially just because they are so true…but also because they reminded me just how remarkable—and how remarkably noble—our nation has the capacity to be, using the fantastic might of our military not to dominate but to make peace, not to bend other nations to our will but to create a world in which even the most dastardly of former enemies can move forward to a better future. And that was the Prime Minister’s wish as well. “It is my wish,” he concluded by saying, “that our Japanese children, and President Obama, your American children, and indeed their children and grandchildren, and people all around the world, will continue to remember Pearl Harbor as the symbol of reconciliation.”
One of the things I admired the most about my father was the fact that he continued to grow morally and intellectually throughout all the years of his life. Very late in life, he became a vegetarian. His political views also morphed forward throughout the years, partially because of his supple intellect but also because he considered ongoing ethical growth a badge of honor not a sign of mental instability. I mentioned above that he never bought a Japanese car, but I’m not sure he ever bought a Japanese radio either. He felt that Pearl Harbor was a symbol of barbarism and inhumanity, and of militaristic depravity. But I think he would have responded warmly to Shinzo Abe’s remarks and found some sort of closure in them. To no one’s surprise more than my own, I felt the same way.