Japanese PM visits Pearl Harbor memorial, says 'we must never repeat the horrors of war'

Putting 75 years of resentment behind them, the leaders of the United States and Japan are making a historic pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor, where a devastating surprise attack sent the U.S. marching into the Second World War.

Wreath-laying ceremony comes 6 months after U.S. president visited Hiroshima

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, delivers remarks as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Under a warm Oahu sun, with the tranquil, teal waters of Pearl Harbor behind them, former enemies came together Tuesday to acknowledge the tremendous loss caused by the Japanese attack on U.S. military installations in Hawaii 75 years ago.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic pilgrimage to the site of the devastating surprise attack that sent America marching into the Second World War.

"As the prime minister of Japan, 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," Abe said.

He did not apologize for the attack but said "we must never repeat the horrors of war again."

Pearl Harbor survivor Al Rodrigues, 96, says he welcomes the visit by Japan's top leader to the USS Arizona Memorial that honours sailors and marines killed at Pearl Harbor. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)

No apology needed, said 96-year-old Alfred Rodrigues, a U.S. Navy veteran who survived what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a "date which will live in infamy."

"War is war," Rodrigues said as he looked at old photos of his military service. "They were doing what they were supposed to do, and we were doing what we were supposed to do."

Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, but Abe was the first to go to the memorial constructed on the hallowed waters above the sunken USS Arizona.

There, he and Obama placed a pair of green-and-peach wreaths made of lilies and tossed purple flower petals into the water. 

'Friendship and lasting peace'

Obama and Abe closed their eyes and stood silently for a few moments.

Afterward, they spoke at nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where Obama called the harbor a sacred place and said that "even the deepest wounds of war can give way to friendship and lasting peace."

"As we lay a wreath or toss flowers into waters that still weep, we think of the more than 2,400 American patriots, fathers and husbands, wives and daughters, manning heaven's rails for all eternity," Obama said.

Obama and Abe participate in a wreath-laying ceremony aboard the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In likely the last time he will meet with a foreign leader as president, Obama said the two countries are bound by shared interests and common values and their alliance is "the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and a force for progress around the globe."

The two leaders greeted survivors in the crowd, shaking hands and hugging some of the men who fought in the battle on Dec. 7, 1941.

The visit is powerful proof that the former enemies have transcended the recriminatory impulses that weighed down relations after the war, Japan's government has said. Although Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, Abe will be the first to visit the memorial constructed on the hallowed waters above the sunken USS Arizona.

Symbolic reciprocity

For Abe, it's an act of symbolic reciprocity, coming six months after Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima in Japan, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in hopes of ending the war it entered after Pearl Harbor.

More than 2,300 Americans died on Dec. 7, 1941, when more than 300 Japanese fighter planes and bombers attacked. More than 1,000 others were wounded.

In the ensuing years, the U.S. incarcerated roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps before dropping atomic bombs in 1945 that killed some 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.

Obama and Abe arrive at the USS Arizona Memorial. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to visit the memorial. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

Abe's visit is not without political risk given the Japanese people's long, emotional reckoning with their nation's aggression in the war. Though the history books have largely deemed Pearl Harbor a surprise attack, Japan's government insisted as recently as this month that it had intended to give the U.S. prior notice that it was declaring war and failed only because of "bureaucratic bungling."

"There's this sense of guilt, if you like, among Japanese, this `Pearl Harbor syndrome,' that we did something very unfair," said Tamaki Tsukada, a minister in the Embassy of Japan in Washington. "I think the prime minister's visit will, in a sense, absolve that kind of complex that Japanese people have."

Obama and Abe also held a bilateral meeting at Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii earlier Tuesday. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Since the war, the U.S. and Japan have built a powerful alliance that both sides say has grown during Obama's tenure, including strengthened military ties. Both Obama and Abe were driving forces behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping free-trade deal now on hold due to staunch opposition by the U.S. Congress and president-elect Donald Trump.

Moving beyond the painful legacy of the war has been easier for Japan and the U.S. than for Japan and its other former foes, such as South Korea and China. As Abe arrived in Hawaii, Beijing dismissed as "wishful thinking" the notion that Japan could "liquidate the history of World War II" by visiting Pearl Harbor.

"Japan can never turn this page over without reconciliation from China and other victimized countries in Asia," said Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman

75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

7 years ago
Duration 1:52
Historical footage including President Roosevelt's announcement