[Speaking Out] Japan just needs to clear up misunderstandings about Pearl Harbor

On March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a virtual speech to the United States Congress. He called for solidarity with Ukraine, saying Americans should not be indifferent to Ukraine’s tragedy under Russian invasion. The address was excellent overall. But he understood a point that the Japanese could not ignore. The part of the speech in question was as follows:

“Ladies and gentlemen, American friends, in your great history you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians. Understand us now, when you need it right now – when we need you right now. Remember Pearl Harbor, the dreadful morning of December 7, 1941, when your skies were dark from the planes attacking you.

Japanese bombers used armour-piercing projectiles to sink the USS Arizona and other ships at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Zelensky’s inappropriate quote

Of course, Zelensky had no intention of criticizing Japan. He cited the event familiar to Americans only as an example of the terror of being attacked from above. In fact, however, there are Japanese people whose feelings were hurt by Zelensky’s remark.

Zelensky did not draw a simple comparison between Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Russia’s attack on Ukraine. While the Japan-American War is attributable to a conflict of opinions and interests over the future of East Asia, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is unjustifiable, illegal, brutal and an act of unilateral violence. It is inappropriate to use the memory of a scene from the first to deepen the understanding of the second.

How should Japan react to the inappropriate comparison based on misperception?

As a Ukrainian who cares about Japanese-Ukrainian friendship, I don’t want Ukraine’s image in Japan to become bad because of the president’s remark. I would suggest Japan ask Zelensky through diplomatic channels to correct the remark. Such a Japanese request may provide Zelensky with a valuable opportunity to correct his misperception.

Memorial service at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Reversing the Western stereotype through communications

At the same time, however, Japan must understand that it is not just about Zelensky. Unfortunately, most Westerners have a similar historical perception. Former US President Donald Trump called the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor diabolical. To correct the misperception, Japan has no choice but to proactively promote external communications.

In reality, established stereotypes will remain unchanged unless proactive attempts are made to correct them. And in Western countries, only a few people are free from this stereotype.

They cannot be expected to move voluntarily to change Western countries’ assessment of Japan regarding World War II. Therefore, Japan, subject to this misunderstanding, should proactively try to dispel it.

Andri Gourenko.

(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals, Speak #900 in English on March 24, 2022 and in Japanese March 22, 2022.)


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Author: Andri Gourenko

Andri Gourenko is an international political scientist from Ukraine.