Former Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida’s forgotten Pearl Harbour trip

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 11:07pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will visit Pearl Harbour with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, wasn’t even born when Japan’s former leader Shigeru Yoshida went there just six years after the country’s second world war surrender, by himself and feeling awkward.

Yoshida is best remembered for signing the San Francisco peace treaty with the US and others in 1951, allowing Japan back into international society after its war defeat. His Pearl Harbour visit, which he made on his way home from San Francisco, was largely eclipsed by the historic treaty.

Archival writings and photos unearthed reconstruct Yoshida’s visit, from his aim to win US trust to how he was put at ease by the US Navy commander’s dog.

Yoshida arrived at Pearl Harbour on September 12, 1951, shortly after requesting a courtesy visit to the office of Admiral Arthur Radford, commander of the US Pacific fleet. The office overlooked Pearl Harbour, offering a direct view of the site of the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941.

Radford recalled that he thought Yoshida might feel uncomfortable because of his office’s location.

“I could almost see the wreck of Arizona” out of the window, he wrote in his memoir, “From Pearl Harbour to Vietnam,” referring to a battleship that sank in the attack.

Yoshida, westernised and fluent in English, showed up in a white suit, wearing his trademark brimmed hat and carrying a cane, apparently looking a bit stiff.

Then Radford’s dog broke the ice.

His little Scottish Terrier, which was stretched out in front of Radford’s desk, walked slowly to Yoshida to be patted, while sniffing around his shoes and ankles.

“That started a dog conversation that took most of the visit,” Radford wrote.

Yoshida was a dog fancier, and had bought terrier puppies just before leaving San Francisco, his grandson Taro Aso, currently Japan’s finance minister, has said. Yoshida named the pair “San” and “Fran” after his successful trip.

Years later, Yoshida told Radford’s wife how he was embarrassed when he walked into the office after seeing Pearl Harbour, and how happy he was that the dog was able to settle him down.

A Navy archival photo shows the two men shaking hands, with a smiling Yoshida looking up at the much taller Radford. Yoshida spent about 20 minutes at the office, according to an AP story from Sept. 13, 1951.

Yoshida’s visit to Pearl Harbour was actually on his second Hawaii stopover, having stopped there on his way to San Francisco as well.

But he was more relaxed the second time after completing the important mission in San Francisco, where he also signed the original Japan-US security pact.

On his way to California, Yoshida landed in Honolulu on August 31, 1951, when Japan was still technically an enemy.

During that visit, he laid flowers for the war dead at Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a military cemetery better known as Punchbowl. Three other Japanese prime ministers have since followed suit. A local Hawaii newspaper recently reported that two others also had visited Pearl Harbour later in the 1950s.

Yoshida’s daughter, Kazuko Aso, who was travelling with him, recalled that security was extremely tight in Hawaii on his first stopover, before the peace treaty was signed, and that Yoshida, who stayed on the top floor of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, was instructed not to leave the hotel for safety reasons.

“But that old man insisted he wanted to go out ... to pay tribute to the war dead,” Aso said in an interview published in the Bungei Shunju monthly magazine weeks after the trip.

She said the Japanese delegation unexpectedly received a warm welcome. Photos in the Japanese newspaper Mainichi showed Yoshida’s face nearly buried in Hawaiian flower necklaces because he had received so many of them at the airport.

At the September 12, 1951, reception attended by US military and Hawaiian officials, Yoshida sought further US economic assistance and cooperation to reconstruct his war-devastated country and pledged to never use aggression.

Two days later, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin welcomed his speech as “a notably frank admission of Japan’s war guilt and a pledge that Japan will do everything possible to repair the enormous damage done by her armies, navy and air force”.