PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid wreaths at various cemeteries and memorials Monday ahead of a visit to the site of the 1941 bombing that plunged the United States into World War II.
Abe landed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and then headed to National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where he laid a wreath. He stood for a moment of silence at the cemetery near downtown Honolulu, which is known as Punchbowl.
He later visited a nearby memorial for nine boys and men who died when a U.S. Navy submarine collided with their Japanese fishing vessel in 2001. At the Ehime Maru Memorial, he again laid a wreath and bowed his head. Abe finished his day with a reception dinner at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu where he spoke about his visit.
On Tuesday, he'll be the first Japanese prime minister to visit the memorial that honors sailors and Marines killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan's former leader Shigeru Yoshida went to Pearl Harbor six years after the country's World War II surrender, but that was before the USS Arizona Memorial was built. Yoshida arrived at Pearl Harbor in 1951, shortly after requesting a courtesy visit to the office of Adm. Arthur W.R. Radford, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The office overlooked Pearl Harbor, offering a direct view of the attack site.
Two other Japanese prime ministers have also visited Pearl Harbor. Ichiro Hatoyama spent time here in 1956 and Nobusuke Kishi in 1957. The Japanese government confirmed the visits by Hatoyama and Kishi this week after a Japanese language newspaper in Hawaii pointed them out.
The memorial will be closed to the public Tuesday when Abe visits the historic site, joined by U.S. President Barack Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii with his family.
The importance of the visit may be mostly symbolic for two countries that, in a remarkable transformation, have grown into close allies in the decades since they faced off in brutal conflict. At the same time, it's significant that it took more than 70 years for U.S.-Japanese relations to get to this point.
Abe won't apologize for Japan's attack when he visits, a government spokesman said earlier this month.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that "the purpose of the upcoming visit is to pay respects for the war dead and not to offer an apology."
The visit comes six months after Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima for victims of the U.S. atomic bombing of that city at the end of the same war.
Pearl Harbor survivor Alfred Rodrigues said Monday he welcomes the visit by Japan's top leader to Hawaii.
"I'm glad he's coming to show that we're all peaceful now and you know, we were doing what we were supposed to do and they were doing what they were supposed to do," he told The Associated Press.
Remembering the day of the attack in 1941, Rodrigues said that he had just sat down to have breakfast when the alarm sounded and the word got out, 'Man your battle stations, this is not a drill,' he recalled.
"We all ran out to the armory to get rifles and ammunition and we could see the planes up above with the red circles on the bottom. We knew it was the Japanese planes," Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues says he doesn't think Abe should apologize. "War is war. I mean, they were doing what they were supposed to do and we were doing what we were supposed to do. I have no animosity at all towards them."
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo.