Abe Goes to Pearl Harbor: A Trip Prompted by Donald Trump?


On December 26–27, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō will visit Pearl Harbor, paying his respects at the war memorial with President Barack Obama by his side. Their final summit meeting aims to open a new chapter in a robust bilateral alliance—and making this an urgent task is the appearance in January of the administration of Donald Trump.

Pearl Harbor Visit Arranged on the APEC Sidelines

On November 17, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō visited Donald Trump at his home in New York City’s Trump Tower. The two spoke for some 90 minutes, far longer than the originally allotted time, during their highly unusual encounter. Foreign leaders do not generally meet with the president-elect during the transition period, as this runs the risk of bifurcating diplomatic channels while there is still a president in the White House.

The unexpected emergence of a Trump administration in the United States appears to have changed this calculus, though. And in a way, the shock of his election may also have been one factor prompting Abe to travel later this month to Pearl Harbor, the site of Japan’s 1941 attack that touched off the Pacific War with the United States, where he will stand alongside President Barack Obama and offer prayers for those who perished there.

The unusual meeting was arranged by Japanese foreign policy officials working with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. For much of the meeting Trump played the role of listener, paying close attention as Abe offered his assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the many other world leaders he has met face to face during his time in office.

Leaving New York, the prime minister traveled on to Lima, Peru, for the summit gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. According to Japanese government officials, the reception he received there on November 20 from President Obama was cool—the president, visibly displeased that Abe had jumped the gun and met with his successor already, would not even look Abe’s way. In such an atmosphere, it would hardly be surprising for the summit to end without any discussion between the two leaders.

Abe, though, had other plans. Finding a moment to approach the president, he shared his idea of a visit to Pearl Harbor. Obama’s reply to this was swift and firm: If you go to Pearl Harbor, it must not be because you have been forced to do so. Abe, in turn, noted that he had wanted to pay his respects at the Hawaii memorial ever since delivering his April 2015 speech to the US Congress. With this, President Obama agreed to accompany the prime minister there.

A Trump Factor Behind Obama’s Hiroshima Visit?

We can trace the thread of these events back to May this year, when Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima. Such a visit had never materialized previously due in large part to opposition from American World War II veterans voicing strong concerns that it could be taken as an apology for the US decision to use the bombs in August 1945.

What, then, drove a hesitant President Obama to make the trip and deliver his historic Hiroshima speech? Nothing other than the provocative words and actions of Donald Trump, the ascendant candidate of a Republican Party angling to retake the White House after eight years of the Obama administration. In a March interview with the New York Times, he claimed that Japan and South Korea would need to take responsibility for defending themselves from the North Korean threat—including by building nuclear arsenals. With this statement, he crossed a line that had been clearly drawn by Republican and Democratic administrations alike throughout the postwar era: In East Asia, Japan, and in Europe, Germany, must never be allowed to go nuclear.

President Obama was alarmed by this position, according to several of his aides. A nuclear-armed Japan would lead naturally to a nuclear Germany as well, followed by open declarations by countries including Israel and Saudi Arabia that they had the bomb too. It was this threat that prompted the president to deliver his speech in Hiroshima warning of the dangers of a nuclear world and the need to avoid this future.

An Alliance Rooted in Common Ideals

Thus we come to Prime Minister Abe’s planned trip to Pearl Harbor, a reply of sorts to President Obama’s Hiroshima tour. This, too, has been inspired in part by the looming prospect of a Trump presidency. At an April 4 campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Trump had harsh words for Japan as a nation that would have to take on more responsibility in the alliance:

“We’ve got to straighten out our military deals. We’re taking care of all these countries. . . . So we go to Japan. . . . We have to say, ‘You’ve got to help us out.’ Now, they’ll probably say initially ‘No.’ And then we leave and then they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ But if they don’t say yes, you always have to be prepared . . . to walk.”

This statement was built on multiple misunderstandings of the actual situation.

In the realm of international security issues, where the fate of the world literally lies in the balance, the wheeling and dealing of Donald Trump the businessman will accomplish nothing.

As the world’s number-three economic power, Japan certainly should play a larger role in maintaining a stable East Asian order. But this is not the same as saying that Japanese forces should be responsible for defending US territory—something that the American people themselves may not be in favor of. And would it be wise for Japan to pay even the salaries of the US military forces stationed in Japan, making them little more than hired mercenaries? Sudden, drastic changes to the Japanese security landscape—the sort that would first of all require a fundamental revision of the Constitution of Japan—run the risk of sparking anti-American nationalism among the Japanese people.

In his Hiroshima address, President Obama stated: “The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance, but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.” Aware of the treacherous currents flowing just beneath the surface of society in both Japan and the United States, he was stressing that the bilateral alliance was not only military in nature—that it must be positioned on the bedrock of our shared ideal of democracy.

Obama and Abe Move to Firm Things Up

On December 26, 2013, Prime Minister Abe offered prayers at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Surprisingly to some in Japan, it was the Obama administration that reacted most strongly to this move. The US State Department’s disappointed statement was swiftly followed by criticism from China, Russia, the European Union, South Korea, North Korea, and other quarters. In a flash, Japan appeared to be encircled, in an echo of the geopolitical situation leading up to the Second World War. This was a heartening development indeed for China, a burgeoning naval power pushing forward into the South and East China Seas. And it confronted Abe with the need to extract Japan from this diplomatic morass and set its alliance with the United States back on firm footing once again.

Following an expenditure of enormous amounts of Japanese diplomatic energy, the prime minister reached an important milestone on the road to reconciliation with his April 2015 speech before a joint session of the US Congress. Before his speech, he visited the Freedom Wall at Washington DC’s World War II Memorial, viewing the more than 4,000 stars embedded therein. And he spoke: “I gasped with surprise to hear that each star represents the lives of 100 fallen soldiers. I believe those gold stars are a proud symbol of the sacrifices in defending freedom.”

With his presentation that day, Prime Minister Abe argued forcefully that the Japan-US relationship is an “alliance of ideals,” built on the common ground of freedom and democracy. His message resonated with the American legislators who heard it. And now, by making Pearl Harbor the site of the summit meeting that will cap the four years of the “Abe-Obama era,” he is seeking to make the alliance as unshakeable as possible.

This move to cement bilateral ties immediately is a reflection, quite simply, of Abe’s inability to discern a common foundation of ideals on which he can build the alliance with President-elect Trump. Unexpectedly, Obama and Abe find themselves in agreement that this is a final, precious chance to do what they can to firm things up.

(Originally published in Japanese on December 8, 2016. Banner photo: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and President-elect Donald Trump. © Jiji.)

security Abe Shinzō alliance Barack Obama Japan-US Donald Trump