Updated at 6:50 p.m. ET
President Obama and Japanese Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic appearance at Pearl Harbor, 75 years after the surprise attack that prompted U.S. entry into World War II, praising the reconciliation and partnership between their respective nations.
In a somber ceremony Tuesday, the two leaders touted the U.S.-Japan alliance that arose in the aftermath of the bitter conflict and became a “cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Obama said.
“The U.S. and Japan chose friendship and they chose peace,” Obama said. “It has helped underwrite an international order that has prevented another World War.”
Abe, for his part, offered his condolences, but stopped short of an apology for the Dec. 7, 1941, air raid that killed more than 2,300 service members.
“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,” Abe said through an interpreter.
But while both leaders spent significant time memorializing the dead, it was the current relationship between the two nations that took center stage. Abe said “the spirit of reconciliation” was at work in U.S. efforts to aid the war-wrecked Japan following its surrender. He also credited the U.S. for allowing Japan to transition from an imperial nation to a peaceful democratic one.
“On behalf of the Japanese people, I hereby wish to express once again my heartfelt gratitude to the U.S. and the world for the tolerance extended to Japan,” the prime minister said.
Abe’s visit also marks the first time a Japanese prime minister has made an official visit to the site of the surprise aerial attack, and takes place just seven months after Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Hiroshima, the Japanese city where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945, hastening the end of the war.
While Abe is not the first Japanese leader to visit this World War II landmark, he’s the first do so publicly and alongside a U.S. president. Three Japanese prime ministers made low-key visits in the 1950s, including one in 1957 by Nobusuke Kishi — who was Abe’s grandfather.
Those visits received scant attention, so little that Abe himself was apparently unaware his grandfather had been to Pearl Harbor. At the time, the trauma of World War II was still vivid for millions of Americans and Japanese and neither side appeared eager to advertise the unofficial visits by the Japanese leaders.
With Obama down to his final weeks in office, the two leaders held their last bilateral meeting and reviewed the state of the U.S.- Japan alliance.
Obama has sought to increase the U.S. focus on the broader region with his “pivot to Asia” at a time of growing Chinese military and economic might.
President-elect Donald Trump’s approach has so far been marked by provocative statements about China, and also by calls for Japan to pay more for security assistance. However, he hasn’t yet spelled out the details of his plans.
Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump. The two sat down at Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 18, though few specifics emerged from the discussion.