December 22, 2016 / 6:49 AM / 7 months ago

Japan's Abe aims to send message of U.S. alliance strength at Pearl Harbor

4 Min Read

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers his speech during a joint announcement on the return of American military to the island of Okinawa at the Abe's official resident in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2016.Toshfumi Kitamura/Pool

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to use next week's visit to Pearl Harbor to send a message that the alliance between former foes Japan and the United States is firm and vital in an uncertain region.

    Abe's December 27 visit with President Barack Obama comes 75 years after the attack that thrust the United States into World War Two - and less than four weeks before Donald Trump becomes president.

When Obama in May made a historic visit to Hiroshima, target of the world's first atomic bombing, candidate Trump tweeted, "Does President Obama ever discuss the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while he's in Japan? Thousands of American lives lost."

Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano said "not just Abe, but the whole foreign policy community in Japan, is desperate to send a message not just to the world, but to President-elect Trump, that the U.S.-Japan alliance is strong and can only get stronger."

Before the November 8 election, Trump triggered concern with comments - since denied - on Japan possibly acquiring nuclear arms, demands to pay more to host U.S. forces or risk their withdrawal, and opposition to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

Abe last month became the first world leader to meet Trump after the election. Following their hastily-arranged meeting in New York, Abe called him a "trustworthy leader.

The weaker yen triggered by the billionaire property magnate's election has given Japan's economy a fillip by making exports cheaper. And Softbank Group founder Masayoshi Son has visited Trump to pledge a $50 billion investment to create U.S. jobs.

Fraying Ties?

The U.S. Pacific Command Joint Color Guard presents the colors during the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii December 7, 2011.Hugh Gentry/ Files

Still, many Americans and Japanese worry future ties will fray. A December Gallup-Yomiuri newspaper poll showed 41 percent of Japanese think relations will worsen. Forty percent in the United States agreed, both up sharply from last year.

The two nations, however, have largely put the war behind them and the alliance has tightened under Abe.

"Our position is that the war is long over and Japan and the United States are now the strongest of allies," the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States said in a statement.

In contrast, the wartime legacy still plagues Japan's relations with China and South Korea.

"If Abe is looking for a symbolic gesture, he must go to Nanjing and to Korea to see 'comfort women'," said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Josai International University. He was referring to Japanese troops' 1937 massacre of civilians in Nanjing and to women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Abe will not apologise for the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that killed more than 2,000 military personnel, a government spokesman has said, a step that would irk his conservative base. Nor did Obama apologise for the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The Pearl Harbor visit will "express the value of reconcilation between Japan and the United States", Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said this month.

Abe will be the first Japanese incumbent premier at Pearl Harbor since a brief 1951 stopover by Shigeru Yoshida.

Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Richard Borsuk

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