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Japanese leader’s Pearl Harbor visit isn’t a first, but it can still be a milestone

Caroline Kennedy, US ambassador to Japan, greeted Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Monday in Honolulu. Abe will visit Pearl Harbor with President Obama on Tuesday. Marco Garcia/Associated Press
Caroline Kennedy, US ambassador to Japan, greeted Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Monday in Honolulu. Abe will visit Pearl Harbor with President Obama on Tuesday. Marco Garcia/Associated PressMarco Garcia/Associated Press

TOKYO — When President Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima in May, there was no question that he was the first sitting US president to do so.

But as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to pay his respects at Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, Japanese officials are scrambling to identify what, exactly, is unprecedented about his reciprocal visit. It appears he will be the first to visit, with an American president, the memorial that honors sailors and Marines killed in the 1941 attack.

Abe arrived in Hawaii on Monday. He will visit the USS Arizona memorial with President Obama on Tuesday.

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Abe announced this month that he would visit Pearl Harbor. Japan’s Foreign Ministry, in news briefings, indicated at the time that he would be the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor, the site of the surprise attack on a United States naval base.

It turns out, though, that he is the fourth sitting prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor.

A few days after Abe announced his visit, news reports emerged that a predecessor, Shigeru Yoshida, had stopped in Hawaii in 1951 on his way home from signing a treaty in San Francisco and paid a quiet visit to Pearl Harbor.

And last week, a Japanese-language newspaper in Hawaii reported that it had found in its archives articles about two other visits there by sitting Japanese prime ministers in the 1950s, including Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather.

In response to the reports, Japanese officials are characterizing Abe’s visit as the first by a sitting prime minister with a US president to the memorial atop the remains of the USS Arizona, the US battleship on which the worst losses occurred. The memorial was constructed in 1962.

After the existence of the prior visits was reported, Japan’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged that in 1956 Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama had visited the United States Pacific Command in Honolulu, and that Kishi had followed in 1957.

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Kishi was also reported to have visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a mountaintop shrine dedicated to the American dead in several wars.

Abe’s office said that “it was difficult to confirm as it was contained in records more than 60 years ago.”

It is possible that the current government did not realize that the prime minister’s predecessors had visited Pearl Harbor.

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said he was not familiar with either Hatoyama’s or Kishi’s visits. “They weren’t big-time, official state visits,” he said.

At the time, the news media on both sides of the Pacific provided scant coverage.

Abe apparently did not know that his grandfather Kishi had been to Pearl Harbor. Abe has professed his desire to fulfill his grandfather’s thwarted effort to revise the pacifist clause in Japan’s Constitution.

In answering questions about why the Japanese government had not recognized the earlier visits, Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, told reporters Monday that Abe would be “the first to express remorse” at the Pearl Harbor memorial.

Indeed, the politics of apology began to gain currency only in the 1980s, said Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in modern Japanese history.

Hatoyama and Kishi would have stopped in Hawaii because they needed to make refueling stops on the way home from Washington. And when they visited the US Pacific Command, Dudden said, “Those were more likely visits of assurance that in fact now the Cold War was up and running and Japan was very much an ally.”

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Abe’s visit, on the other hand, represents “a formulaic understanding of contrition that enables a nation to reinstate itself as sufficiently contrite in order to move on into the future,” she said.

Other historians said that whether Abe was the first or fourth prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor was less significant than what he does when he is there.

“What we should watch is what Mr. Abe will say,” said Masayasu Hosaka, a historian who has written books about wartime Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. “That’s more important. How his speech will be evaluated historically and internationally is more interesting.”