On a peaceful Sunday morning seventy-five years ago, Captain Mervyn Bennion stood on the flag bridge of his ship, the USS West Virginia, amidst the afterglow of a Hawaiian sunrise. Within minutes he had bled to death on the deck, commanding his battleship to the last, his stomach pierced by shrapnel from a bomb fragment as one of the first casualties of the United States in World War II. The Congressional Medal of Honor that Bennion was awarded posthumously for his courage and ultimate sacrifice was only small consolation at the time to his family and friends.
Captain Bennion was my father’s uncle. His story is one that our family has relived with both anguish and pride into the fourth generation. I myself have lived eleven years in Japan, served as Special Advisor to the US Ambassador to Japan, and count Japanese veterans, including former members of the kamikaze suicide corps, as friends. I believe deeply in both the human and the strategic rationale of the remarkable US-Japan alliance that has emerged in post-war years. Yet the shadow of Pearl Harbor has not disappeared for me.
So what should we make of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appearance at Pearl Harbor for a farewell summit with Barack Obama? I am personally glad that Abe is coming, just as I was glad that Obama visited Hiroshima, but I see no equivalence between the two, nor do I feel the historical issues are behind us, just because of these visits. The real meaning of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima is still out there, and still to be debated.
We need more objective historical study of both events, and a healthy, ongoing, scholarly and apolitical debate over their origins would be a good way to keep these signal landmarks from being forgotten. Both are monuments, after all, to the dangers of misperception in trans-Pacific relations—an endemic cross-cultural problem that continues to raise its ugly head across the years. How those misperceptions occurred, and how they led to tragedy, is a particularly important matter for reflection. With respect to Pearl Harbor, why the Japanese military thought it could challenge the United States with impunity and prevail—and why it felt impelled to do so—are unsettling topics that thoughtful observers in both the US and Japan must continue to ponder. So is the issue of how trans-Pacific misperceptions—between the US and China as well as the US and Japan—can be better neutralized and managed.
Substantively, this late 2016 transition juncture gives the US and Japan a felicitous chance to reset and re-affirm their relationship, in the wake of a bitter US political campaign, and the demise of a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that many had looked to as a stabilizing factor. Rather than more abstract rules, which might never have addressed the deepening economic frustrations of so many Americans, the two countries need a Domestic Policy Dialogue, reviewing best practice on real-world issues like vocational education, infrastructure, energy, and health care. They need to devise joint projects, ranging from high-speed rail and smart energy grids to health-care diagnostics, that give common people in both countries a sense that US-Japan relations can deliver something of real personal value, rather than just more speeches, rules, and empty symbolism. And to give those projects real substance, the two countries need to think of creative new funding options, including potential use of public-private partnerships and Japan Bank for International Cooperation finance.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, having dealt for four years with President Barack Obama, and opening an early dialogue with President-elect Donald Trump as well, is in a unique position to take concrete steps to improve the delicate US-Japan relationship, challenged as it is both by economic tensions and shadows of the past. He also has ongoing negotiations with Russia, having met with Vladimir Putin only days ago, and with plans to meet Putin in Moscow again soon. A successful Pearl Harbor summit could both provide leverage for Abe with the Russians, and also enhance his prospects of staging a successful snap election in Japan early in the new year.
Abe thus has strong personal and national incentives for a smooth Pearl Harbor summit with Barack Obama. The outgoing Obama White House similarly has strong incentives to show its handiwork and diplomatic craftsmanship one last time.
Amidst all the good feeling and camaraderie, however, it is crucial to reflect upon the past: to remember, across the generations, that Pearl Harbor is more than an exotic tropical backdrop. Seventy five years ago it was an inferno, where real people died, whose sacrifices must be honored, and never forgotten. And from that memory, we gain the strength to build what needs to be a constructive and cooperative trans-Pacific future.