Japan leader Shinzo Abe reaches out to Japanese Americans in L.A. visit


For decades, an uneasy ambivalence marked the relationship between Japan and many Japanese Americans after the Asian nation’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the community’s mass removal from the West Coast and incarceration in desolate compounds.

But in his first state visit to Los Angeles on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed to take pains to reach out to Japanese Americans with appearances honoring their war veterans and touring their national museum’s exhibit on the community’s history.

In Little Tokyo, the historical heart of Japanese America, Abe presented a wreath of white lilies, roses and chrysanthemums at the Go for Broke monument, which honors more than 16,000 Japanese American veterans who served overseas during World War II.


The visit, the first by a Japanese prime minister, thrilled the seven veterans who turned out in their blue service caps to shake hands and pose for pictures with Abe.

“I was shocked he would take the time to drop by, but it was really nice he came to see us despite the fact that a few of us fought against his country,” said Ken Akune, 91, who served as an interrogator and translator for the U.S. Military Intelligence Service and later assisted in the war crimes trial of Japanese General Hideki Tojo.

Abe later toured the Japanese American National Museum and met with community leaders at an evening reception.

“This visit is historic for our museum,” said Greg Kimura, who heads the institution. “Historically, there has been this ambivalence toward Japan over the decades because of the war, but there has been a lot of reconciliation. A lot of those old wounds have been healed.

“Ultimately, we are cousins whether removed generations or just a few years,” he said.

Abe also thanked Japanese Americans during a luncheon address at the Biltmore Hotel, praising their “tremendous efforts to recover American confidence in Japan” after the war, according to the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese American newspaper.

In his remarks, Abe confirmed that the Japanese government planned to open a “Japan House” in Los Angeles, one of three in the world aimed at showcasing the country’s cutting-edge technology and its traditional and popular culture. Japanese media have reported that officials hope the project will increase international support for Japan amid disputes with China and South Korea.


Jon Kaji, a Japanese American businessman, said Abe’s outreach seemed to underscore new interest by Japan in both Little Tokyo and the United States market. Many Japanese firms abandoned Little Tokyo after the deep recession of the 1980s, but Kaji said he is working with various business groups interested in possible new investments. Among other things, Kaji hopes to lure the Japan House project to Little Tokyo.

Earlier this week, Abe touted Japan’s high-speed rail technology to Gov. Jerry Brown with a simulation of the nation’s famous Shinkansen bullet train. He also tested an all-electric Tesla car and spoke about technological innovation at Stanford University.

His appearances in California were marked by protesters demanding stronger apologies by Japan for such wartime atrocities as the Nanking massacre and the forced sexual servitude of “comfort women” for Japanese troops throughout Asia.

In Little Tokyo, however, a handful of Abe supporters waved papers printed with the red sun of Japan as the prime minister’s motorcade went by. Yoshiko Ueda, who owns a graphic design store in Little Tokyo, said Abe’s visit reflected the reconciliation between the one-time war enemies.

“We have a very bad history between the two nations because of the war, but the United States forgave us, and the forgiveness makes a new start,” she said.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe