The alliance between the US and Japan looks set to strengthen further in the near future. The first sign was the meeting “frank and friendly” between the president-elect Trump and the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe last November 17, the first informal meeting for the incoming administration with a foreign head of government. The second step, which is more symbolically and politically significant, is the announcement of Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbour, in concomitance with the celebrations in memory of Japanese air attack on US port of Hawaii, which claimed 2,400 victims and pushed the USA to enter the war 75 years ago, on December 7, 1941.
The visit, planned for the end of December, promises to be an act of historic significance that aims to strengthen ties between the two countries and to inaugurate a new phase in bilateral relations between the shores of the Pacific. The more concrete aspects concern the Japanese need to reduce the uncertainties regarding the future US policy toward the Rising Sun, fueled by the unregulated Trump presidential campaign that, among other things, urged Tokyo to contribute more to the costs for the US military bases on Japanese soil.
The visit will culminate with a summit between Japanese Prime Minister and the outgoing president Obama, the next 26 and 27 December, delivering a clear message to the new administration: the alliance works as it is and should not be questioned. Obama and Abe have decisively contributed, on several occasions, to cement strategic cooperation between their countries. In 2015 the common defense guidelines were updated and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were authorized to intervene in the US Army side in a limited number of scenarios.
Trump, however, has not been kind to Japan during the recent presidential campaign. After asking for more money to continue to ensure the presence of American military bases in the Archipelago, the candidate Trump criticized Obama for having visited Hiroshima, in the role of first US president to pay homage to the victims of the nuclear bombing that ended the World War II in the Pacific. According to Trump, Obama would have also remembered the victims of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour where “thousands of American lives have been lost.”
The next visit of Abe, therefore, serve to compensate for the gesture of Obama’s opening and to give the new administration the image of a Japan willing to look at the past with different eyes. According to the analyst Kent Calder, from Johns Hopkins University, the Abe’s visit will make the alliance with Japan more acceptable for Trump supporters, facilitating future relations.
On the Japanese front, Abe has always seemed willing to question that page of national history, at least in part by recognizing the responsibilities of his country. During a joint session of Congress, last year, the Prime Minister of Sol Levante made express reference, for the first time, to the Pearl Harbour attack, without offering an official apology. Also in anticipation of the visit of late December, the issue of apologies will remain suspended. Abe intends to bring “comfort” to the Japanese victims of the attack of 75 years ago and pay tribute to their memory, but can not be expected to use a straightforward language that can be read at home as the formulation of a public apology in favor of the former enemy.
On the American front, Abe’s visit could hurt the feelings of the survivors victims relatives, a concern which the incoming administration is certainly very sensitive to. Josh Earnest, the current Press Secretary of the White House, does not rule out that the Japanese visit will embitter the victims of the attack, even after so much time. Earnest, however, said he is confident that many will put aside their dose of bitterness, recognizing the historic significance of the event.
The visit promises, then, to be a success for Obama, who seeks to consolidate its legacy with a symbolic and diplomatic victory at a time when its main achievements on the international front, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear and the reconciliation between Washington and Havana , risk to be overwhelmed by the wave of the new Trump administration.
Shinzo Abe will be the one ,however, to reap the best fruits. The visit will serve to the prime minister to shake off the label of the historical revisionist, who accompanies him since his election, and that tarnishes his image at home and especially abroad. Fumiaky Kubo, a historian interviewed by the Japan Times, argues that Abe, despite the bad reputation, has made ” has made more progress in wartime reconciliation than any other prime minister. This
could be a model case for a reconciliation and set an example that both sides have to make efforts”
At a time when the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) seems doomed to failure, and the territorial dispute over the islands between Kamchatka and Hokkaido that opposes Japan to Russia is stopped into a siding, a strengthening of the partnership with the US could be the succes Abe needs to boost his government’s action on the international stage. Even at the risk of watering down the verve of nationalism that has always characterized is administration.