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The Short Distance from Pearl Harbor to Yasukuni Shrine

SNA (Tokyo) — The Abe administration and, more generally, the Japanese rightwing, couldn’t have asked for more from the outgoing Obama administration at Pearl Harbor. The US government apparently requested nothing at all of Tokyo when inviting Prime Minister Abe to speak beside President Obama at the December 27 event, and Abe used the opportunity for maximum political effect.

Abe appears to have had two major audiences in mind—the Japanese public back home and the incoming Trump administration. For both audiences Abe wanted to demonstrate that the US-Japan Alliance is both strong and friendly, and that his government had done much to tighten those fraternal links.

Because the US government required nothing, Prime Minister Abe was allowed to glide over the issue of Pacific War responsibility, not only by not apologizing, but not even admitting that Japan had been the aggressor at Pearl Harbor (in his earlier career Abe had repeatedly questioned the conventional historical view). Instead, Abe cast the Pearl Harbor as a human tragedy, caused by no one specified in particular, but which witnessed brave soldiers on both sides doing their “noble duty” of protecting their homelands.

The triumph of the Japanese rightwing in this performance could be seen most clearly in Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine the very next morning after returning to Japan together with the prime minister. This was the first-ever postwar visit by a Japanese Defense Minister to the shrine, and it caused predictable outrage in Seoul and Beijing, whose own wartime sacrifices had just gone completely unobserved by the Japanese prime minister at Pearl Harbor.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry called Abe’s war reconciliation efforts “a joke” and local authorities in Busan reversed their earlier course and allowed a civic group to erect a new Comfort Women memorial in front of the Japanese consulate in their city.

The response from the Obama administration was one of unpleasant surprise, but only mild public criticism.

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