By Lee H. Hamilton
Dec. 7 is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, commemorating Japan’s surprise attack in 1941 on a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. It’s also a time to step back and appreciate the remarkable transformation of the U.S.-Japan relationship: how we went from being sworn enemies to vital allies over a few decades.
For those who remember, Pearl Harbor was a signal event. As with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the 9/11 attack for later generations, we can say where we were and how it felt.
I was a young boy, sitting with my parents on the front porch of our home in Evansville, Indiana, when we heard the news on a Sunday afternoon. I was too young to know what it meant, but I realized from my parents’ response that it was serious. They knew the U.S. was moving into a dangerous period, that it was likely we would enter a world war. I sensed their feelings, and I was worried because they were.
The attack followed a time of isolationist sentiment. The Great Depression and the memory of World War I left many Americans leery of getting dragged into the conflicts in Europe and Asia. Pearl Harbor changed that. In a 90-minute attack, Japanese fighters killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,143. Eighteen U.S. ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the famous speech in which he called Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” He called on Congress to declare war on Japan, and it did so. Within days, Germany and Italy joined Japan in declaring war on the United States. Over the next four years, nearly 300,000 Americans would die in World War II, along with tens of millions of people worldwide.
We rightly celebrate America’s patriotic response to the war effort, but not all our actions were exemplary. Over 100,000 Japanese Americans, many of them citizens, were forcibly relocated to internment camps. It’s disturbing to look back at the racist stereotypes used in wartime anti-Japanese propaganda. War can bring out the worst as well as the best in people.
Eventually, the war in the Pacific ended with Japan’s surrender after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There followed a U.S.-led Allied occupation of Japan, which enacted military, political and economic reforms. Japan’s postwar constitution did away with its right to wage war.
Japan’s subsequent social and economic recovery was remarkable. With help from the U.S. and other allies, Japan built itself into an international powerhouse. Its manufacturing and commercial growth were termed the “Japanese miracle.” Although its growth slowed in recent years, Japan remains one of the world’s largest economies, ranking third or fourth by GDP.
Equally remarkable was Japan’s transition from an aggressive imperial power to a peaceful democratic nation. Arguably, the United States has no stronger or more reliable partner in the Asia Pacific region. We cooperate on development assistance, health, environmental protection, human rights, education, science, and technology. Japan supports the rules-based world order through the G7, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.
The U.S.-Japan relationship is complex, and not everything has been smooth. We have competed in trade and manufacturing, and there have been protests over the 50,000 American troops that remain in Japan. But overall, as President Joe Biden said last month in a meeting with Japan’s prime minister, we have been united in addressing “real challenges,” such as China’s aggression and provocations by North Korea.
With so much conflict in the world, it’s heart-warming to consider what Japan has accomplished. It shows that it is possible, with encouragement and support, for a nation to transform itself into a modern, prosperous democracy and a contributing member of the world community.