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Konrad Yakabuski

Abe’s peaceful visit to Pearl Harbor will send a powerful message Add to ...

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will stand with President Barack Obama in honouring the more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers killed in his country’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that lives in infamy, if not controversy.

As the first Japanese leader to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, the resting place of many of the U.S. Marines killed in the attack, Mr. Abe is taking a giant step forward that none of his postwar predecessors felt his country was ready or secure enough to watch its prime minister make.

Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama will hail this as a moment of final reconciliation and proof that their countries, once the most bitter of enemies, have forged one of the globe’s most trusted friendships. They will proclaim their countries united in peace and, as during Mr. Obama’s 2016 visit to Hiroshima, they will express their desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

What the world, including president-elect Donald Trump, will not hear from Mr. Abe is an apology for what most American historians maintain was a “sneak attack” that drew the United States into the Second World War. That may still be too much to ask of any Japanese prime minister, especially one who emerged from the nationalist wing of the Liberal Democratic Party, as Mr. Abe did.

These days, the Japanese leader has a knack for keeping the hawks and doves at home guessing about his true colours, which helps him in a country that, unlike Germany, remains deeply conflicted about its militaristic past.

This is the same Mr. Abe who, three years ago, visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. His pilgrimage to this memorial to Imperial Japan’s war dead, including several notorious war criminals, delighted his domestic base but was formally greeted with “disappointment” by Washington and outrage by China and South Korea, the two countries that most bear the scars of Japanese imperialism.

This is also the same Mr. Abe who, in 2015, told a joint session of the U.S. Congress that he visited Washington’s Second World War memorial “with deep repentance in my heart.” Not quite an apology, but more pathos than anyone back home had been expecting from their conservative leader.

With Mr. Abe, appearances can be deceiving. What might be interpreted as a peaceful gesture, such as the Pearl Harbor visit, is also intended as warning to a more militarily assertive China that it is still no match for a U.S.-backed Japan. It comes as China tests U.S. resolve to halt its military expansionism in the South China Sea. It also serves as a reminder to Mr. Trump, who has accused Japan of free riding off the massive U.S. defence presence on its territory, who America’s true friends are.

China greeted the news of Mr. Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor by insisting he should visit a memorial to the Nanking Massacre, where thousands of Chinese civilians died at the hands of Japanese troops in 1937.

If some Japanese get their backs up whenever Mr. Abe does reach out to China or South Korea, it is in part because Japan is depicted so negatively in the Chinese and South Korean media.

“It does have a lot to do with domestic politics in those countries,” Akio Takahara, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, says of the Asian-Pacific propaganda wars. “If the Japanese Threat theory has been propagated so much in the official Chinese media it is because domestically they need it. Their economic downturn is very real and the government is very concerned about domestic stability.”

Mr. Abe’s Pearl Harbor visit also comes amid rising doubts about the fate of a deal he sealed last year with South Korea’s recently impeached president Park Geun-hye to compensate wartime “comfort women,” often young girls treated as sex slaves by Japanese troops. In exchange, Mr. Abe sought the removal of a statue honouring comfort women outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Yet, even Mr. Abe’s modest step towards reconciliation are denounced by Japanese nationalists who insist that comfort women were not coerced, but willing participants in providing sexual favours to Japanese soldiers, while the attack on Pearl Harbor was deliberately provoked by Franklin Roosevelt, who needed a pretext to force his reluctant country into the war.

Such is the fine line Mr. Abe walks, all the way from Tokyo to Hawaii.

Konrad Yakabuski visited Japan this month on a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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