A respected Japan expert regards Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming visit to Pearl Harbor as significant to Japan-U.S. relations, enabling the incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump, to explore deeper bilateral ties.
“Visiting Pearl Harbor is extremely symbolic. The visit is more than what words can convey,” Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Asahi Shimbun in a recent interview.
Describing Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as the “last big demon of the past,” Auslin said, “It actually makes it easier for Trump to pursue a cooperative, even deeper relationship with Japan because this has been done.”
Abe will pay his respects to victims of the Pearl Harbor attack with U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Hawaii on Dec. 26 and 27.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
Question: How do you evaluate Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision?
Auslin: I think it's a very welcome move, and it's overdue.
Obviously, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in May, and that was one acknowledgment of the war and our ability to create a decades-long partnership after all. It is only logical for the prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor.
I think it's the right thing to do, and it will put the war further behind us and focus more on the relationship today.
Q: Do you consider this year to be the last or the best opportunity for Abe to visit Pearl Harbor?
A: I don't think it's the last or the best. I think it certainly makes sense.
There is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and this is a particularly appropriate moment to do that. But I don't think that there's never an end date to it. Abe has made a pretty good relationship with Obama, and so it certainly makes sense for him to try to want to do this before Obama leaves office.
Q: Do you think it's better for Abe to visit Pearl Harbor now than under the Trump administration?
A: No, I think any time is good. It makes a lot of sense for him to do it with Obama before he leaves office because Obama visited Hiroshima. There's sort of a symmetry to that.
I think in a way it actually makes it easier for Trump to pursue a cooperative, even deeper relationship with Japan because this has been done, right? Leaders of both countries have visited the one spot that is the most controversial for each of them, and it's in the past now.
In a way, it sort of frees up Trump when he becomes president to say the past is the past, and now we're going to look forward. Hopefully, he'll do that.
Q: For Japan, are there any strategic benefits of this visit taking place before the start of the Trump administration? Maybe Abe will be able to answer critics who have described him as being a kind of history revisionist?
A: Those are going to be there as long as Abe is around. It's some of the statements he's made and things (he’s done) that people are concerned about.
But I think that he has over and over repeated his intention and desire to never repeat the war and to learn the lessons of the war to show extreme remorse for what happened in the war. And he's really, I think, gone as far as he can go.
I mean visiting Pearl Harbor is extremely symbolic. In some ways, the visit is more than what words can convey, to go there yourself and I assume lay a wreath, and think about all those who were killed on that day.
For the most part, I think that this really lays the issue to rest. I mean in a way that you know you can't do much more. Both leaders visited Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, they made statements, and it's really about finally acknowledging the past is the past.
Q: Do you think it was a package deal with the Hiroshima visit, even though the White House has said that there was no connection?
A: I think that it probably was understood that once the president went to Hiroshima then at some point it would be very good to have the prime minister go to Pearl Harbor. I doubt there was a specific linkage. I doubt there was a date mentioned, but I'm sure that the general feeling was we have to have both of these visits.
Abe has been very bold. He's been bold with Trump. He's certainly been bold in Southeast Asia and India. To me it's part of this rather bold foreign policy that he has and doing things that some of the critics thought would be difficult or even maybe impossible.
He's shown that he's willing to really look forward and not backward. The way you do that is by trying to lay to rest any of the demons of the past, and the last big demon of the past was Pearl Harbor.
Q: Abe met with Trump a couple weeks ago. Was there some sort of connection between this meeting and his decision to visit Pearl Harbor while under the Obama administration?
A: I doubt it. I mean I heard that from the Japanese side. I really don't think there's any connection.
I think that if anything, this was much.....