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US President Barack Obama and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe will meet Tuesday at Pearl Harbor, making Abe the first Japanese leader to pay an official visit to the site of the bombing that drew the United States into World War II in December 1941.
It will also be the first time that an American president and a Japanese leader have appeared together at the wreckage of the USS Arizona, where 1,177 sailors and Marines died and which is now a memorial. The attack left 2,403 dead in all.
In announcing his plans to reporters, Abe suggested that the visit comes in return for Obama’s visit to Hiroshima earlier this year.
“President Obama’s message for a world without nuclear [weapons] upon his visit to Hiroshima was engraved in the heart of the Japanese people,” Abe was quoted as telling reporters in Tokyo when the trip was announced in early December. “I will visit Pearl Harbor with President Obama. This will be a visit to soothe the souls of the victims. We should never repeat the ravages of the war.”
Obama’s trip to Hiroshima was equally historic; he was the first sitting president to visit the site of the 1945 atomic bomb attack, which killed more than 100,000 Japanese during the initial blast and the resulting fallout.
American deaths during the war in the Pacific are believed to have surpassed 100,000 while historians estimate that more than 6 million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos and others died at the hands of Japan’s army.
Experts say the Pearl Harbor ceremony will be momentous. “It’s very significant as a statement of the importance of the US-Japanese relationship, particularly the security alliance,” said David Warren, a former UK ambassador to Japan and an associate fellow in the Asia programme at Chatham House. “It’s a turning of the historical page.”
The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor and the resultant deaths of more than 2,000 Americans prompted the United States to enter World War II. With an estimated death toll of 60 million civilians and soldiers killed, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the war remains the deadliest in history.
It also ushered in an ugly chapter for the United States: the mass internment of Japanese citizens. About 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the Pacific coast, the vast majority of whom had been born on US soil, were forcefully relocated to camps in the interior of the country. At the same time many Japanese enlisted, often serving in primarily Japanese units that were sent to serve in some of the most dangerous conditions.
A surrogate for President-Elect Donald Trump said that the internment camps provided a precedent for Trump’s stated plan to create a national registry of Muslims. “We did it during World War II with the Japanese,” said Carl Higbie, a one-time spokesman for the Great America PAC, in comments to Fox News.
Congressman Mike Honda, who spent much of his early childhood in an internment camp in Colorado, was one of many to denounce the idea in the strongest of terms.
“These remarks are beyond disturbing,” he said in a statement. “This is fear, not courage. This is hate, not policy …The Trump administration is showing they have not learned from our history when they suggest we go back to one of its darkest chapters; no one should go through what my family and 120,000 innocent people suffered, regardless of their race or religion or any other way they would choose to try and divide us.”