PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Dozens of descendants of Japanese soldiers killed in World War II visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Thursday to pay respects to fallen American soldiers.
Nippon Izokukai, the Bereaved Family Association of Japan, sent about 36 children, grandchildren and other relatives of fallen Japanese soldiers to the U.S. to mark the 70th anniversary of the group's founding.
With the rusted hull of the USS Arizona beneath them, the group laid flowers and a wreath at the memorial after touring the Pacific Aviation Museum and the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor. The group's vice president, Yukio Udagawa, bowed his head in prayer as he and others honored those entombed in the warship just below the turquoise waters of Pearl Harbor.
"We used to be the enemy, but now are the closest of friends," Udagawa said through a translator after the ceremony. His father was drafted by the Japanese before Udagawa was born, and died in World War II fighting when his son was 3 years old. "We are true allies in the world."
The Izokukai group met with two Japanese Americans at the site, Lynn Heirakuji and Byrnes Yamashita of the Nisei Veterans Legacy in Honolulu.
Yamashita's father was a U.S. Army soldier in World War II, and he said while he understands the reasons for the war, he is sorry for the lives lost when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"As an American, particularly a Japanese-American, I have a lot of regrets and sorrow for what my country did to their country at those two locations," Yamashita said. "Our two countries are very strong allies in peace for the future."
On Friday, they will visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, where the group will present paper cranes, a symbol of peace and healing in Japanese culture. They will then travel to Washington for visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial.
The Izokukai group, established in 1947 to support families of Japanese soldiers killed in the war, has long supported Japan's ruling party. As its original members have grown older and its membership has declined, their offspring say they are seeking a way to convey a message of peace.
Last year, then-U.S. President Barack Obama laid flowers at the Hiroshima peace park to pray for the victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic attacks, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined Obama at the USS Arizona Memorial in December.
In the historic pilgrimage, the two leaders took to the hallowed waters of Pearl Harbor 75 years after the attack to prove that even the bitterest enemies can become friends.
Obama, speaking after he and Abe laid green-and-peach wreaths at the memorial, called the harbor a sacred place and said that "even the deepest wounds of war can give way to friendship and lasting peace."
Japan and the U.S. are now close allies, and there has been a growing sense of reconciliation among those with difficult memories of their wartime actions.
More than 1,000 U.S. war dead remain entombed in the submerged Arizona, and in a show of respect, Obama and Abe dropped purple petals into the water and stood in silence.
"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 later at nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Japan "must never repeat the horrors of war again."
That was the closest Abe would get to an apology for the attack. And it was enough for Obama, who also declined to apologize when he became America's first sitting president to visit Hiroshima.
Abe became Japan's first leader to visit Pearl Harbor with a U.S. president. Japanese leaders have visited Pearl Harbor before, but Abe was the first to go to the memorial above the sunken USS Arizona, where a marbled wall lists the names of U.S. troops killed in the Japanese attack.
In the years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. incarcerated roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps before dropping atomic bombs in 1945 that killed some 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.