HONOLULU — Pearl Harbor survivor James Dewitt was among more than 5,000 people who observed a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7. It was exactly 70 years after the beginning of an unexpected military strike by the Imperial Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor. And it was 70 years since Dewitt had been back.
Dewitt said he was surprised to see how much the harbor and Oahu Island has changed. “First thing I recognized is where the battleship Utah was. Other than that, nothing seems the same,” he says.
Back then, he says, there were only two hotels and hardly a building over three stories tall. But the way that the event is remembered and understood is changing even more than the physical landscape.
One aspect of that change is seen standing behind the crowd: the new Pearl Harbor visitor center, which was opened in 2010.
Visitors see snapshots of life before the war, both in Japan and the United States, including Babe Ruth playing baseball with young men in Japan. They find out about suspicions raised against Japanese Americans after the attack and the repercussions for other locals.
Video clips show American civilians and sailors as well as interviews with Japanese pilots describing the event. Alongside photos and descriptions of American battleships is a model of a Japanese aircraft carrier.
George Richard, 90, who survived the attack on the USS Tennessee, said he was glad to see the battle sites around Oahu built up and well visited and that changes to the museum were for the better.
“I think if you’re going to have history, you’ve got to have both sides of it,” said the Navy veteran who has visited Pearl Harbor periodically since before the original museum was constructed in 1980.
For Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the Valor in the Pacific National Monument since 1988, accomplishing the renewal of the museum shows how much the climate has changed.
“I wasn’t prepared to respond to ‘why do we let Japs work here?’ (when I first started working here),” said Martinez at a symposium before the anniversary. “The milestones we have made since 1991 has truly been remarkable.”
The USS Arizona Memorial site remains especially emotional for veterans. “I don’t have hard feelings towards the Japanese … some survivors do,” says Dewitt.
Tears still come to his eyes as he remembers his friend who died on the USS Arizona.
One of those milestones came this year when Sen Genshitsu, a grand tea master of the Urasenke School of Tea, performed a Japanese tea ceremony to honor the 1,177 men who died on board the Arizona.
“That would have been unheard of even 10 years ago,” Martinez said in an interview with Kyodo.
There is still progress to be made in reconciliation, Martinez said, pointing out that even after 70 years no U.S. president has visited Hiroshima, nor has a Japanese prime minister visited Pearl Harbor.
Whether or not that happens, a few individuals will continue to make their own personal efforts at reconciliation.
Naomi Shin is one of them. As the daughter of former Japanese dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe, she returned this year to honor both the Japanese and American casualties of war, as her father had done for more than 10 years. She also visited an elementary school to meet third-grade students who had read a book about the friendship between her father and Richard Fiske, a bugler aboard the USS West Virginia who survived the attack, in their final years.
Erika Ageno, 8, one of the students, says she learned a lot from the friends’ story. “We learned that war is never the best thing to do and you can become friends with former enemies,” she said.
Around 80 Japanese secondary school teachers have participated in yearly workshops on Pearl Harbor and the Pacific war with American counterparts since 2004.
Meanwhile, Japanese students make up 35 percent of all students who visit the site, according to Paul Heintz, education director at Pacific Historic Parks, a nonprofit organization that runs several park sites connected to World War II.
“I didn’t really know much about this. Coming here made me want to find out more,” said a 17-year-old student at Gotemba Minami High School in Shizuoka Prefecture who visited the site on a school trip.
Yujin Yaguchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who studies the way war is remembered and taught, told Kyodo News that for young Japanese to visit the site is a positive step.
“There are about 1.2 million to 1.3 million Japanese visitors to Hawai‘i every year — if we could get 50 percent of them, especially the young generation, interested in thinking about Pearl Harbor, it would really make a tangible change in the ways in which Pearl Harbor is remembered in Japan,” Yaguchi said.