by Pam Pommer
In May, President Obama visited Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb in August 1945. On Dec. 28, 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an historic visit to Pearl Harbor with President Obama.
Dec. 7, 1941, is truly a date that has and will “live in infamy.” Neither Abe nor Obama apologized during their visits, but what made the events so special was that they commemorated the healing that has occurred over the years between two former enemies who are now close friends and allies.
Prime Minister Abe spoke eloquently of the senseless tragedies of war and stated, “… since the war, we have created a free and democratic country that values the rule of law and has resolutely upheld our vow never again to wage war.”
I grew up hearing the phrase, “Never forget Pearl Harbor.” My great uncle hated the Japanese so much that he refused to own anything made in Japan. My father, a gentle soul who hated conflict of any kind, nevertheless felt his life was spared when the bomb ended the war and he could return home from World War II.
In 1988, I felt a bit of irony when I embarked upon a two-year mission trip to teach English in Japan. When I arrived, I felt like Dorothy and knew I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. I was very homesick, even though I had arrived with 10 other missionaries from the states. At first, I clung tightly to my American friends. Then, almost imperceptibly, there was a paradigm shift. It was starkly apparent one day when we were visiting a U.S. Air Force base. I suddenly was separated from my group of students and went into a panic. All the western military faces I saw were totally foreign to me. I desperately searched for the ones I knew and loved. Soon, I found my group of students and felt secure again.
While in Japan, where I felt safe to walk the streets at any time of night, I thought of my great uncle and thought of how surprised he would be that his niece was now living happily and peacefully in Japan.
During a holiday break, I went to Hiroshima. As I entered the museum, a young Japanese man encouraged me to go through the Peace Garden after I completed my tour. “It will help you feel calm.” How amazing! He wanted to comfort me.
Leaving Japan was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Japan had become a second home to this Swedish American whose family had fought against it during WWII. As I prepared to leave, a Japanese friend said to me, “You know, sometimes I forget you aren’t Japanese.” It was the most amazing compliment a Japanese person could say to a gaijin.
In the summer of 1990, I returned to the U.S., and while going through customs in Los Angeles, I found myself following a group of Japanese to the line for foreign arrivals. It was the beginning of a long period of reverse culture shock and readjustment to life in America.
Japan and the U.S. had strong motives to remain enemies and refuse to reconcile. But they choose another path. They did not choose to just tolerate each other. Instead, they chose, as Abe called it, an “alliance of hope.” Reconciliation is difficult but not impossible. Germany is also now one of our closest allies. And then there’s that other country we fought with 240 years ago, and we’ve more than patched things up with them as well.
When Abe and Obama stood side by side at Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t to defend or forget that fateful day. Rather it was to embody the audacity of hope and reconciliation. It is fitting that Abe recited these words from President Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on … to do all which may achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Pam Pommer, a graduate of Lincoln Senior High School, works and lives in Bloomington, where she enjoys gardening and spending time with her shelties. She can be contacted at [email protected]