JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a powerful gesture of reconciliation 75 years after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined President Obama Tuesday to lay a wreath at the USS Arizona Memorial and tell a gathered crowd that Japan "must never repeat the horrors of war again."
"Together, with President Obama, I paid a visit to that memorial, the resting place for many souls. It was a place which brought utter silence to me," Abe said, through a translator.
"As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place."
That was the closest Abe came to offering an apology for Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
And that was close enough for 93-year-old Everett Hyland, a Pearl Harbor survivor.
"They were young fellows doing a job just like we were doing a job. There's nothing to apologize for," said the former radio operator, who spent nine months in the hospital recovering from wounds he suffered when a bomb hit the USS Pennsylvania.
Obama, too, declined to apologize seven months ago when he became America's first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in a bid to end World War II.
Abe's historic visit Tuesday, the first of a sitting Japanese prime minister to the Pearl Harbor memorial, highlights the strength of U.S.-Japan relations and how far the two nations have come since the war.
Speaking after Abe, the president called the harbor a sacred place and said that "even the deepest wounds of war can give way to friendship and lasting peace."
"As we lay a wreath or toss flowers into waters that still weep, we think of the more than 2,400 American patriots, fathers and husbands, wives and daughters, manning heaven's rails for all eternity," Obama said.
"Mr. Abe, I welcome you here in a spirit of friendship. Here, in this quiet harbor, we honor those we lost. May God hold the fallen in his everlasting arms."
The two leaders then greeted survivors in the crowd gathered at Pearl Harbor, shaking hands and hugging some of the survivors who fought in a battle President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a "date which will live in infamy."
'The ghosts of war'
Charles Morrison, East-West Center president, said Abe's visit is a strong symbolic sign of the close relationship between Japan and the United States.
"It doesn't end all of the ghosts of the war, but it reduces it," he said. "They stand for their countries dedicating themselves to an era of cooperation that's going to be even more important in the future."
Abe arrived in Hawaii on Monday, touching down about 9 a.m. at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where he was met by Gov. David Ige and other dignitaries. Shortly after arriving, Abe headed to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and Makiki Cemetery to lay wreaths, a tradition that other Japanese prime ministers have followed during their visits to Hawaii.
Two cabinet members, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida, also attended the events.
Also on Monday, Abe visited a memorial to those who died when a U.S. Navy submarine collided with Japanese high school fishing vessel Ehime Maru 15 years ago. Nine boys and men died when the USS Greeneville rammed the fishing vessel off Oahu on Feb. 9, 2001.
Abe wrapped up the day with a welcome dinner at the Hawaii Convention Center, where hundreds came out to greet the prime minister.
'A big deal'
Abe's Pearl Harbor visit marks a remarkable transformation in U.S.-Japan relations; the two have grown into close allies in the decades since they faced off in brutal conflict. At the same time, it's significant that it took more than 70 years for the two nations to get to this point.
"This is definitely a big deal," said Sal Miwa, of the Japan-America Society of Hawaii.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed after Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, throwing the U.S. into World War II.
While Abe is not the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor, he was the first to set foot on the memorial that catalogs the toll of the attack.
Japan's former leader Shigeru Yoshida went to Pearl Harbor six years after the country's World War II surrender, but that was before the USS Arizona Memorial was built. Yoshida arrived at Pearl Harbor in 1951, shortly after requesting a courtesy visit to the office of Adm. Arthur W.R. Radford, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The office overlooked Pearl Harbor, offering a direct view of the attack site.
A rare visit
Abe said earlier this month he planned to visit Pearl Harbor "to comfort the souls of the victims" of the 1941 attack. But his cabinet made it clear he would not apologize for Japan's attack.
Likewise, Obama didn't apologize for America's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped bring the war to an end. More than 250,000 men, women and children were killed.
"I personally don't think that large powers make apologies to others," Morrison said. "To acknowledge the wartime deaths in both countries, not just those who died in these attacks but those who died in the whole conflict, I think it just exactly the right way to go."
Visiting Pearl Harbor as a Japanese leader is seen as a rare occurrence because of domestic political opposition. According to the New York Times, Emperor Akihito tried to visit the memorial in 1994, but protests erupted from Japan's nationalist right wing, prompting him to change his plans.
However, many news agencies suggest Abe's Pearl Harbor visit could encourage a deeper friendship between Japan and the U.S. and could even lift his approval ratings.
Rick Tsujimura, of the East-West Center board of governors, said the timing of the historic joint appearance was perfect, since holding it on Dec. 7 would have been distracting. "Prime Minister Abe's presence here is sort of the bookend to President Obama's visit to Hiroshima," Tsujimura said.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, also attended the commemoration ceremony Tuesday along with three-time Bronze Star recipient and World War II veteran Kenji Ego, who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.