With President Obama at his side, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid tribute to U.S. war dead at Pearl Harbor on Tuesday and offered “everlasting condolences” for the attack 75 years ago that killed 2,403 service members and propelled America into World War II.
“I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place,” Mr. Abe said. “We must never repeat the horrors of war again.”
Mr. Obama said the Japanese leader’s gesture served as a reminder that “the most bitter of adversaries can become the strongest of allies.”
In an apparent dig at President-elect Donald Trump and his backers, Mr. Obama said the prime minister’s visit offered a lesson in tolerance and reconciliation.
“It is here that we remember that even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward,” Mr. Obama said. “We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”
The president also praised the U.S.-Japan alliance for “slowing the spread of nuclear weapons,” also seemingly a dig against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump claimed last week that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” During the campaign, he seemed sanguine about the nuclear proliferation, even suggesting that Japan itself could acquire nuclear weapons.
The historic meeting was likely to be Mr. Obama’s last with a foreign leader as president. It came six months after Mr. Obama paid a similar visit to Hiroshima, Japan, where he became the first sitting U.S. president to see the site of the nuclear bomb attack by the U.S. that helped to force Japan’s surrender in 1945.
Although Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, Mr. Abe is the first to visit the memorial that now rests on the hallowed waters above the sunken USS Arizona, where 1,177 sailors and Marines died during the aerial attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
At the memorial, which is reachable only by boat, Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama walked into the shrine room where the names of American service members killed in the attacks are engraved on a wall.
After pausing in front of two wreaths made of peace lilies, the leaders exited the room and dropped purple flower petals into the water.
More than 1,000 Americans also were wounded in the attack by more than 300 Japanese fighter planes and bombers.
After a year of populist revolts in democracies around the globe, Mr. Abe is one of the few prominent partners of Mr. Obama still holding onto power.
The Japanese leader also has reached out to Mr. Trump, being the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect after his Nov. 8 victory. Mr. Abe has requested to meet with Mr. Trump a week after his inauguration, around Jan. 27.
“We are allies that will tackle together to an even greater degree than ever before, the many challenges covering the globe,” Mr. Abe said. “What has bonded us together is the power of reconciliation made possible through the spirit of tolerance. The world needs the spirit of tolerance and the power of reconciliation now, and especially now.”
Mr. Trump raised concerns in Japan during the campaign by seeming to question to the U.S. commitment to Tokyo’s defense, and saying if Japan had nuclear weapons, “I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.”
The president-elect also has declared his opposition to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, effectively halting a free-trade deal with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations intended to be an economic counterweight to China.
But the president-elect’s early meeting with Mr. Abe suggests that Mr. Trump also understands the importance of the U.S. alliance with its former wartime foe as his administration prepares to confront worsening national security challenges with North Korea and China.
“Trying to liquidate the history of World War II by paying a visit to Pearl Harbor and consoling the dead is just wishful thinking on Japan’s part,” said Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing.
“Japan can never turn this page over without reconciliation from China and other victimized countries in Asia,” she said. “Japanese leaders should stop being so evasive and dodging, and instead take a responsible attitude toward history and future, deeply and sincerely reflect upon the history of aggressive war, and draw a clear break with the past.”
For Mr. Obama, the meeting with the Japanese premier also underscored his limited impact in his attempt to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.
The TPP is all but dead after he spent years promoting it as the economic centerpiece of his second term, and tensions on the Korean peninsula are rising amid the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
At Pearl Harbor, Mr. Obama also emphasized the need for the U.S. to preserve its alliance with Japan.
“Today the alliance between the United States and Japan, bound not only by shared interests but also rooted in common values, stands as the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, and a force for progress around the globe. Our alliance has never been stronger,” the president said.
Dan Kritenbrink, Mr. Obama’s senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, called the meeting “a powerful demonstration of how the two countries can overcome a very painful history to become the closest of allies and friends.”
Seventy-five years after the attack, only five of the USS Arizona’s crewmen are still alive. The U.S. Pacific fleet, formerly Japan’s main rival in the region, lost 21 warships and 328 planes in just a few hours.
In 1956, then-prime minister Ichiro Hatoyama visited the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu adjacent to Pearl Harbor. And Mr. Abe’s grandfather, prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, also did so in 1957.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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