It isn’t all bad news. Last May, Barack Obama became the first American President to visit Hiroshima. On December 27, 2016, Abe Shinzo became the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Pearl Harbor. There is a fine symmetry to these visits that illustrates the power of good, genuine gestures in the careful dance of diplomacy.
When President Obama visited Hiroshima in May 2016, I said that good diplomacy sometimes requires one pay attention to the intangibles, as well as concrete problems. Now Abe Shinzo has returned the favor with a visit to Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake, the Japanese naval attack on US Navy Station Pearl Harbor left a major wound in the American psyche. Look no further than how some Americans react whenever anything slightly unfavorable happens to Japan today. It means a lot for statesmen to visit sites full of historical memories in order to make a gesture of good will. By doing so, they are saying, “What happened here matters, and so does our memory of it.” When Abe and Obama took turns visiting sites of tragedy, which their respective nations visited on each other, they were adding statements about the American and Japanese relationship now: our two nations are no longer enemies. We are allies, and we will face our harsh past together. There is something special about the fact that the first Hawaiian-born President had the opportunity to host this visit. It is equally appropriate that Abe is the Prime Minister to do it: his grandfather was Minister of Munitions during World War II.
Abe’s speech was retrospective and hopeful. While he gave a few stock lines about never repeating the horrors of the war, he also spoke about how some soldiers found common humanity:
Yesterday, at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, I visited the memorial marker for an Imperial Japanese Navy officer. He was a fighter pilot by the name of Commander Fusata Iida, who was hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and gave up on returning to his aircraft carrier. He went back instead, and died. It was not Japanese who erected a marker at the site that Iida’s fighter plane crashed; it was U.S. servicemen who had been on the receiving end of his attack. Applauding the bravery of the dead pilot, they erected this stone marker.
Every war produces stories like this, and Abe’s remarks were meant to indicate that even as enemies, Americans and Japanese find common ground. A paragraph later, he quoted Ambrose Bierce, “The Brave respect the brave,” (To E.S. Salomon) and called the marker for Iida an “example of American tolerance.” There are plenty of ironies to that observation, but they are beyond the scope of this piece, and we should highlight the moments of humanity from a war such as World War II. At the end of the day, the purpose of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor was that they needed to reach each other’s people on a personal level. Abe will likely remain Prime Minister for a few more years, so his goal was not to build on his rapport with Barack Obama, but improve his image with Americans. The best way to do that, when you need to transcend cultural barriers is to be a person. In truth, diplomats do that all the time. But they rarely do this:
I do not know what the Prime Minister and the Veteran said to each other. I do not know if Abe Shinzo is normally a hugger. But I do know the significance of this moment. Look closely at the man’s cap: it says USS Pennsylvania, one of the battleships sunk by Japanese bombers during the attack. The veteran was nearly killed by bombs Abe’s grandfather helped build. Perhaps Abe Shinzo said ‘I’m sorry.’ Maybe he did not. Either way, the Prime Minister did something that mattered. Diplomatic protocols rarely include hugging. Plenty of handshaking, and I am sure Abe prepared himself to shake plenty of Pearl Harbor survivor’s hands. Successful diplomats, like analysts, become good listeners and observers. Good listening is also a key to being a good giver of hugs, because you know when the time is right for one. Anyone who has prepared to spend time in Japan has heard many times that Japanese people do not touch as much as Americans do.
Why would Abe Shinzo visit Pearl Harbor at all? Because he knew it would be the right thing to do. It would help the United States and Japan address World War II, which is still a difficult topic for us to have any kind of dialogue over, and, probably always will. Abe’s visit helped bolster his and Japan’s image in the United States during a time of transition here. He was, apparently, the right Prime Minister to make this trip. President Obama, born in Hawaii, made the right host. Obama opened the door for this moment of personal reconciliation by visiting Hiroshima himself. As statesmen, the President and Prime Minister did what they should do to demonstrate that US-Japan relations are stable and strong because they are built on understanding.