Pearl Harbor Anniversary Could Strain U.S.-Japan Ties

September 22, 1991|By YOICHI KATO

Japan has viewed the approaching 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor with a strong sense of apprehension that the event may inflame anti-Japanese sentiment among the American people. The United States government, planning the commemoration of Japan's attack, dismisses this view as a misunderstanding of the American mood, but at the same time has taken extreme caution in handling the event. Despite the difference in perception, both countries share the idea that a mishandling of the Pearl Harbor ceremonies could adversely affect the future of U.S.-Japan relations.

In Japan, the anniversary awakened concern among government officials and politicians as early as last year, when preparations began in the United States. The Japanese media started to report on the issue soon after. The primary concern was that remembrance of the bombing of Pearl Harbor would further strain the relationship between the United States and Japan -- a relationship already strained by the long-standing trade friction and Japan's slow and inadequate response to the recent Persian Gulf crisis.

The end of the Cold War also provides a source of apprehension. The disappearance of a common enemy, namely the Soviet Union, led to a belief that Japan's importance to the United States as a military ally would decrease, and that Japan would be seen as a new enemy of the United States in place of the Soviet Union. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in May 1990 came as a shocking substantiation of this fear. It showed that 75 percent of Americans regarded the economic power of Japan as a threat to U.S. national security, while only 21 percent answered that the Soviet military posed a threat to the United States.

A recently-published book entitled "The Coming War With Japan," by George Friedman and Meredith LeBard, has further enhanced such apprehension. The authors assert that it is logically possible to conclude that Japan will collide with the United States, because of the substantial difference in national interests. The book has been translated already into Japanese and has become a best seller in Japan.

A State Department official points out that there is a "perception gap" between the United States and Japan in interpreting the attitudes of 250 million American people toward Japan. He claims that the Japanese view is "absolutely wrong," stressing that Dec. 7 is not going to be a Japan-bashing day, and that "Japanese people should try harder to understand our point of view about Pearl Harbor and just relax about the whole thing."

The official explained to the Japanese government that "Pearl Harbor" has much broader significance than simply the surprise attack by Japan. To the American people, it means the turning point in history from isolationism to status as a global power. It also taught them the need for military preparedness and deterrence. And it is a religious day for the survivors and the families of the fallen, he said.

While dismissing flatly the "misunderstanding" by Japan, the U.S. government has been at the same time very considerate and cautious in handling this issue. The focus of attention was whether to invite a representative of the Japanese government to the ceremony. The State Department announced at the beginning of July that it would not extend an invitation to any foreign governments at all.

"We draw a lesson from the experience of the D-Day ceremony in 1984," the official explained. Then, some tension had developed over the rejection of the request to participate by West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

"We had two choices this time: either invite all or none," the official said. The main idea was not to single out Japan. The United States decided to avoid the tension by "keeping it purely domestic."

The Japanese Government, of course, welcomed this decision, but not everybody was happy. The mayor of Honolulu, Frank F. Fasi, wrote a letter to President Bush after the decision was announced, saying that excluding Japan would be "a big mistake." He asked the president to urge the prime minister of Japan "to make a sincere apology on behalf of his nation" and to attend the Pearl Harbor ceremony. This report fueled the fear and apprehension in Japan and stirred up the controversy over what Japan should do.

It seemed difficult not only for the Japanese but for some Americans as well to "relax" about Pearl Harbor. The Japan Society, an American non-profit organization headquartered in New York City, is preparing a conference on Pearl Harbor to promote a well-balanced understanding of the event from a historical perspective. The society says plans for the conference are based on a concern that the 50th anniversary "is likely to foster some tension and harsh remembrances at a time when the present U.S.-Japan relationship already suffers under serious strain."

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