Revisiting the Past: How Japan Views Pearl Harbor

March 15, 2017

It’s likely that a survey of Japanese people taken during the early 1940s about the attack on Pearl Harbor would show broad agreement that it was a necessity. It wasn’t just a declaration of war against the United States and an attempt to cripple the American Navy, it was one in a series of battles against allowing outside influences to dictate their actions. Prior to the attack, the United States had involved itself in Japan’s trade, adding fuel to Japan's nationalistic fire.

Now that 75 years have passed, one wonders how the Japanese view the attack today. Is there shame? Scorn for the actions of the ancestors? Or is it still seen as a justifiable act necessitated by events of the time?

If the Japanese people believe like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, there’s no pride to be taken in the attack that killed over 2,400 Americans and led to Japan’s eventual defeat in the Pacific Theater.

Ignoring the Past

If you flip through a Japanese history textbook, there’s a good chance you’ll see very little mention of Pearl Harbor. Any mention of the planes that swooped in on the US naval base is usually buried among details of the war. It’s not viewed as a major element in the history of World War II like it is in American schools.

Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine

If there’s any place in Japan that would be expected to mention Pearl Harbor, it would be the Yasukuni Shrine, which pays tribute to the men who died serving the Empire of Japan from the mid-19th century onward. Among those honored are 14 Japanese officials who were convicted of crimes against peace during World War II, including Hideki Tojo, who approved the attack on Pearl Harbor and was eventually hanged for it.

Describing events leading up to the attack, a text about Pearl Harbor states, “[The U.S. government] explored means to maneuver [Japan] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing much danger…” The text continues by claiming that President Roosevelt ordered preparation for the attack, which he thought was to occur on December 1st, 1941.

It’s not uncommon for there to be differing views of historical events, so the conflict between Japanese and American opinions of the importance of the attack is not entirely surprising. All we can do is look at the evidence we do have and continue honoring the servicemen who gave their lives protecting Pearl Harbor.

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