Seventy-five years after the four-turret battleship was sunk, a Japanese prime minister stood for the first time at the gleaming white USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor on Tuesday in a symbolic gesture of remorse and reconciliation, but not of apology.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama joined in casting flowers into the waters over the shattered hulk of the Arizona, where hundreds of sailors and Marines are still entombed.
In later remarks, Abe briefly broke away from his Japanese text to speak in English of the "power of reconciliation" that has been demonstrated in the peace and progress of the alliance forged by the U.S. and Japan after a brutal war in the Pacific that killed millions.
"I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences" for the attacks by the Imperial Japanese Fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, that killed more than 2,400 Americans, Abe said, but he did not apologize.
After the war, "when Japan was in ruins, it was the U.S. and its good people who sent us food to eat and clothes to wear," Abe said. "We will never forget what you did for us. On behalf of the Japanese people, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the United States and the world for the tolerance extended to Japan."
In his remarks, Obama said that Abe's visit was a "historic gesture" that "reminds us that wars can end" and "the bitterest of enemies can become the strongest of allies; the fruits of peace can outweigh the thunders of war. This is the enduring truth of Pearl Harbor."
One of the lessons gleaned from the battle, Obama said, was that "We must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different."
Following their remarks, Obama and Abe mingled with Pearl Harbor survivors. Abe crouched and half-knelt before the seated survivors and spoke easily with them, often smiling and laughing. At one point, he appeared to exchange cards with a survivor who wore a cap signifying that he had served on the battleship Pennsylvania.
Before the brief boat trip to the Arizona Memorial, Obama met privately with Abe at the Marine Corps' Camp H.M. Smith, and the two shook hands and smiled for a photo op.
Abe's controversial visit to Pearl Harbor followed Obama's wreath-laying visit last May in Hiroshima, the first by an American president to the scene of the first atomic bombing of a city.
In a speech to a silent crowd at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial, Obama envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, but he also did not apologize. Much like the Arizona Memorial, the Hiroshima site is a place of solemn pilgrimage to recall the loss and horrors of war.
"We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons," Obama later wrote in the visitors' book.
Not the First
The Japanese government had billed Abe's visit to Pearl Harbor as the first by a sitting prime minister, but the government backtracked after newspaper reports showed that Prime Ministers Shigeru Yoshida, Ichiro Hatoyama and Nobusuke Kishi, Abe's grandfather, had quietly visited Pearl Harbor at various times in the 1950s. The government later said that Abe would be the first Japanese prime minister to go to the Arizona Memorial.
"This visit is an opportunity to remember those who died in war, demonstrate a resolve that the horrors of war must never be repeated, and at the same time in send a message about the reconciliation between Japan and the United States," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in early December, when the trip was announced.
For Abe, the two-day trip to Hawaii was "as much about shoring up his credentials as a statesman and trying to address concerns about the future of U.S.-Japan relations under Donald Trump as it is about remembering the past," the Japan Times reported.
Trump criticized Japan during the campaign for not paying enough for its own defense, and he speculated on whether Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons to relieve the U.S. of the defense burden.
When Obama visited Hiroshima, Trump went on Twitter to state: "Does President Obama ever discuss the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while he's in Japan? Thousands of American lives lost."
On Nov. 17, Trump met with Abe at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect.
At the Arizona Memorial, Abe and Obama stopped in the shrine room before two wreaths of peace lilies in front of the honor wall listing the names of those killed in the attacks. They then walked into the well area of the memorial to drop purple flowers into the waters over the battleship.
Abe later spoke of his emotions as he cast the flowers to pay homage to American war dead. "I can almost discern the voices of those crewmen" on that calm, sunny Sunday morning before the Japanese bombers struck, Abe said.
He said he could imagine "the voices of young servicemen as they talked to each other about their futures and dreams. Many had wives and girlfriends they loved."
"When I contemplate that solemn reality, I am rendered speechless," Abe said through a translator. "I cast flowers where those sailors and Marines sleep. Rest in peace, precious souls."
Abe has been bitterly criticized by China and South Korea for what they charge are his attempts to gloss over Japan's brutal aggression during World War II.
Abe has questioned the accepted historical narrative on the enslavement of Korean "comfort women" and the massacre in Nanjing, China, during the war.
He also angered the U.S., China and South Korea in 2013 by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's fallen soldiers and several convicted war criminals, including Japanese wartime leader Hideki Tojo.
In addition to no apology for Pearl Harbor, Abe also made no reference to other atrocities carried out by the Japanese military and instead focused on the new "alliance of hope" between Japan and the U.S., who "have become allies with deep and strong ties rarely seen in history."
On Monday, Abe made no public statements as he toured several memorials, including the National Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the "Punchbowl," in central Honolulu.
The cemetery, administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is the last resting place for more than 20,000 veterans, including more than 13,000 from World War II.
At the Punchbowl, Abe paused and bowed before a stone monument inscribed with the words, "In these gardens recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country."
The cemetery's registry shows that 33 Medal of Honor recipients are buried there. Abe stopped at Section D, Grave 391-A, to honor one of them, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
As an Army second lieutenant, Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants, earned the Medal of Honor and lost an arm while fighting in San Terenzo, Italy, with Company E of the legendary "Go For Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of troops of Japanese ancestry.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.