Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will go to Pearl Harbor with President Obama later this month, becoming the first Japanese leader to visit the site of the attack on Hawaii 75 years ago that thrust the United States into World War II.
Abe said Monday that he will visit Hawaii on Dec. 26 and 27 to “pay tribute” to military personnel from both sides of the Pacific who died during the war. About 2,000 Americans were killed in the Pearl Harbor attack.
“This visit is to comfort the souls of the victims. We’d like to send messages about the importance of reconciliation” between the two countries, Abe told reporters in Tokyo.
The 75th anniversary of the attack falls Wednesday.
The White House welcomed Abe’s decision, confirming that Obama would accompany Abe to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor to honor those killed.
“The two leaders’ visit will showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former adversaries into the closest of allies, united by common interests and shared values,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.
"The meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to review our joint efforts over the past four years to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, including our close cooperation on a number of security, economic, and global challenges," he said.
There had been speculation that Abe would reciprocate Obama's Hiroshima visit by coming to Pearl Harbor during the last days of the U.S. president's second and final term — and during Obama's last annual two-week winter vacation as president.
The prime minister’s wife, Akie Abe, visited Pearl Harbor in August, laying flowers at the USS Arizona Memorial and meeting a survivor of the attack.
Earnest described Obama's visit to Hiroshima as "a powerful image seeing the American president and the Japanese prime minister standing side-by-side in that city."
"I suspect seeing the Japanese prime minister and American president in Pearl Harbor at the memorial at the USS Arizona just a couple of weeks after the 75th anniversary will be similarly powerful," Earnest told reporters Monday. "It is just one more occasion for us to remember the substantial sacrifice and remarkable patriotism of the greatest generation of Americans."
Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, called Abe’s announcement “very surprising news” but also “reasonable quid pro quo since Obama went to Hiroshima.”
“People will be watching for his remarks,” said Klingner. “I think it will be another way for the U.S. and Japan to reaffirm their strong relationship.”
But Shinzo Abe’s move is likely to anger the more conservative forces in his right-wing government, who promote a revisionist view of Japan’s history and seek to restore their nation’s pride in its imperialist past.
While Abe shares some of these sympathies, he also has taken a pragmatic approach. On the 70th anniversary of his country's surrender, he issued a statement last year that expressed remorsefor Japan's World War II actions. His government also has agreed on a final deal with South Korea to resolve the long-standing dispute over the Japanese army's wartime use of women as sex slaves, euphemistically known as "comfort women."
The visit would, however, probably be popular among the general public, said Scott Seaman, Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group, and give an additional boost to Abe, who could call snap elections in the influential lower house of the Diet, or parliament, as soon as January.
"The trip to Pearl Harbor, which the vast majority of Japanese will view as a foreign policy victory, supports this base case, with a February election much more likely than one in January," Seaman said in a note.
Although Abe is returning the favor that Obama did for him by visiting Hiroshima, the Pearl Harbor visit could smooth the way for Abe to build a strong relationship with the incoming Trump administration, Seaman said. "We assess that Trump and his team will applaud the visit," he said.
Just before 8 a.m. Hawaii time on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Almost 200 aircraft bombed the site for more than 30 minutes, destroying the USS Arizona and other naval vessels. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the ambush "a date which will live in infamy" and asked Congress to declare war on Japan.
Japan surrendered Aug. 15, 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the two nations have long since become close allies, Obama and Abe have attempted to use the visits to bring closure to old grievances.
Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Donald Trump last month in New York. Tokyo has been alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric on trade and security, and Abe said afterward that he had “a very candid discussion” with him.
David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.