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Obama, Abe Memorialize The Dead In 1941 Pearl Harbor Attack


At Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Japan's prime minister paid a visit to honor those who died on the day that will live in infamy. That's the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that triggered America's entry into World War II. President Barack Obama joined Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the USS Arizona memorial for the ceremony yesterday. NPR's Elise Hu was there and she joins us now from Honolulu. Hi, Elise.


MARTIN: What was Japan trying to do in making this visit now?

HU: Well, this was Prime Minister Abe's answer to President Obama's visit to Hiroshima earlier this year. The two nations got this on the calendar just in time, just weeks before Obama leaves office. And we should point out, Rachel, that Shinzo Abe isn't the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor, but he was the first to do so with a U.S. president. Here's my report on what was an emotional day.

Seventy-five years since Japan's surprise attack, adversaries-turned-allies together honored the Pearl Harbor victims on a balmy Hawaii afternoon. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe didn't apologize, but through an interpreter acknowledged all those who died in World War II.


PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) 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.

HU: Over the past few years, both Japanese and American leaders have made symbolic efforts to shed the painful scars of war in order to strengthen the two countries' strategic alliance.


ABE: (Through interpreter) Ours is an alliance of hope that will lead us to the future. What has bonded us together is the power of reconciliation made possible through the spirit of tolerance.

HU: There is a symmetry in this visit. Earlier this year in May, President Barack Obama made history as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities destroyed by American nuclear bombs. President Obama spoke at Pearl Harbor, following Abe.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I hope that together we send a message to the world that there is more to be won in peace than in war, that reconciliation carries more rewards than retribution.

HU: The two leaders appeared after paying a silent visit to the memorial built atop the sunken battleship USS Arizona. They rode together by boat to the stark white structure and stood solemnly before a wall with the etched names of the victims. Together they led a moment of silence, just as they did when Obama made his visit to Hiroshima. In a final gesture, they tossed flower petals into a viewing well where the rusted-out wreckage of the Arizona can be seen underwater. Abe.


ABE: (Through interpreter) I cast flowers on behalf of Japanese people upon the waters where those sailors and marines sleep.

HU: A reference to the fact the memorial is also a military cemetery. More than a thousand sailors and marines are entombed in that submerged ship.


MARTIN: As nations and as people, we cannot choose the history that we inherit, but we can choose what lessons to draw from it.

HU: The moment was heavy with history, but Alexis Dudden, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Connecticut, noted the recurring theme in Hawaii of hope for the future.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Clearly the message from the moment of both his and President Obama's remarks was to affirm the strength of the alliance moving ahead.

HU: It's an alliance whose path could be altered by the next American leader. The visit to Pearl Harbor marked the last time Obama will meet Abe as president, and is likely Obama's final summit with any global leader. The next U.S. president, Donald Trump, has sent divergent messages about Japan, assuring Abe of the alliance's strength but also criticizing Japan for not shouldering enough of the burden for its defense.

DUDDEN: There's already saber rattling going on from the president-elect's team.

HU: Dudden says the relationship will be key as regional neighbor China continues flexing its military might and North Korea stays on its nuclear path.

DUDDEN: This nervousness among Japanese officials, not so much whether or not the U.S. and Japan will remain allies - I think that's very clear - but really what the direction of U.S. policy is going to be.

HU: For Obama and Abe, Tuesday's somber ceremony brought their chapter to a close. The outgoing president drove home a message about relationships and reconciliation.


OBAMA: It is here that we remember that even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.

HU: Both leaders pledged that the two countries will remain the strongest of allies despite a painful past.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from Honolulu. Thanks so much, Elise.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.