President Obama’s Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day proclamation is to be commended. It recognizes the elephant in the room of U.S.-Japan relations. It reminds everyone that there is a history to the relationship. The many recent missteps in the “alliance” can be attributed to the failure to address the history issues between the two countries.
Obama’s apparent habit of elaborate greetings, which don’t necessarily follow traditional egalitarian U.S. protocols, is likely to have been behind the President’s bow to the Japanese Emperor. I suspect the exaggerated, awkward ‘bow’ was merely an instinctive act of what Obama felt are good manners and culturally sensitive.
Unfortunately, it was an inadvertent slight to the new liberal Hatoyama government that has little use for the Imperial Household or the rightists that support it. The bow appeared to insiders as a sly nod of support to those who promote the U.S.-Japan Alliance. It was not lost on the DPJ that these out-of-power LDP conservatives also want a return of Imperial power.
But whatever Obama’s intent, its potential damage may have been lessened by today’s Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day proclamation. The President clearly points out that “the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese on Pearl Harbor was an attempt to break the American will and destroy our Pacific Fleet.” He acknowledges that Imperial Japan was the aggressor in the war.
The Bush Administration and President-elect Obama last year failed to mention even once Japan in their statements on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. For Bush it was the “enemy” and for Obama it was the “danger.”
There is no longer any need to do this. If Obama had again ignored the fact that it was Imperial Japan that bombed Pearl Harbor, he would have further insulted both the new government in Japan and the Americans that died on that day and after.
Tacitly exonerating Japan from starting the Pacific War and elevating the Emperor panders to the conservative LDP and the rightists that believe what Imperial Japan did was right and support an “alliance” merely to further their own nationalist goals. The U.S. no longer needs to appease these people. They are no longer in a position to help with American security objective in Japan or Asia.
Even those conservatives in the Hatoyama Administration such as Maehara (a Nippon Kaigi member) and Nagashima (who denies Nanking) are being marginalized. Maehara is relegated to promoting airports and selling trains, while Nagashima gets reprimanded regularly by the Chief Cabinet Secretary. Supporting these conservatives in and especially out of government merely antagonizes the DPJ and confirms their suspicions about American Japan handlers as wanting to undermine the new government.
Part of being a modern equal to the U.S. is not being treated as a quaint, fragile Oriental. Bowing to the Emperor poked at the DPJ by catering to the antiquated sensibilities of the LDP and Japan’s conservatives. The DPJ is in power, not the LDP. It seems a bit pernicious to encourage Japan’s Right this way. Note, despite the American neocon outcry against the “bow”, none of the neocon Japan experts objected or commented. Their Japanese friends were delighted.
The Futenma issue festers because neither Tokyo nor Washington has successfully confronted the bitter war history of Okinawa. The prolonged American occupation of Okinawa (until 1972) and unwillingness of the Japanese government to do no more than bribe Okinawan leaders has allowed a deep hostility toward both powers on the Island.
It was only two years ago that the LDP government ordered textbook revisions to indicate that some Okinawans committed suicide or were forced to commit mass suicide, but not 'by whom.' And it was the LDP government that has failed for 14 years to relocate Futenma. For its part, Washington naively thinks Okinawans still can be persuaded by Tokyo.
The Emperor by putting out his hand tried to give Obama the hint as to what was the right thing to do. The Emperor who has been trying to humanize and modernize the Imperial Institution must have been puzzled by the President's inelegant bow. His Highness knows that the voters now count in Japan.