By Suzanne Roig
HONOLULU (Reuters) - A Japanese war veteran in black robes sought to silently conjure the spirit of peace and reconciliation on Tuesday as he prepared tea over the watery graves of 1,177 Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years ago.
The tea ceremony, an ancient Buddhist ritual, was performed for a group of dignitaries and hundreds of onlookers on a memorial built above the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, a battleship famously destroyed in Japan's surprise bombing of the U.S. Pacific fleet.
The loss of life aboard the Arizona, which exploded in flames and crumpled into the sea within minutes of being hit, accounted for nearly half of the 2,390 Americans who perished at Pearl Harbor and other attack sites on the island of Oahu on December 7, 1941.
The attack drew the United States into World War Two against Japan and Germany on the side of the Allies.
The tea service, symbolizing harmony, reverence and purity, was intended to strengthen the bonds of U.S.-Japanese friendship that have developed between the two nations over more than six decades since the war ended.
Although Japanese dignitaries have regularly attended Pearl Harbor remembrances each December over the years, the tea ceremony was the first of its kind conducted there.
"Tea is the perfect tool to calm our hearts and to show consideration to one another," said Genshitsu Sen XV, an 88-year-old grand tea master of the Urasenke School of Tea and a World War Two veteran of Japan's imperial military.
Sen spoke to reporters through an interpreter after the service. The elaborate ritual itself, lasting about 15 minutes, was conducted in absolute silence on the USS Arizona Memorial, a white platform spanning the battleship's sunken wreckage.
BUGLERS PLAY TAPS
The structure is a centerpiece of the larger World War Two Valor in the Pacific National Monument, administered by the National Park Service.
Seated at a black lacquered table with bronze pots and bowls, Sen covered his mouth and nose with a ceremonial white cloth to keep him from breathing any impurities into the two bowls of green tea he prepared with solemn deliberation.
The bowls -- one dedicated to the 1,177 war dead entombed beneath the memorial and one to world peace -- were then placed on a wooden altar inside the Memorial Shrine Room where the names of the USS Arizona's victims are etched in stone.
Breaking the silence at the end of the service, two buglers in dress whites took turns playing American and Japanese versions of taps.
The ceremony was introduced by Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie as a "bridge of peace." He was joined on the deck of the memorial by three Pearl Harbor survivors, a contingent of Navy brass, Park Service officials and Japanese diplomats. An audience of a couple hundred others watched the service via closed-circuit TV from two auditoriums onshore.
The idea of hosting the ceremony at Pearl Harbor was the brainchild of former Hawaii first lady Jean Ariyoshi.
"We come together to reflect upon the sacrifices of our fallen warriors entombed below us as we stand on this very special memorial erected above," she said.
Some had mixed emotions about the ceremony.
"I still have bitter feelings over the whole thing," said Terry Wilson, 59, the son of a World War Two veteran who was visiting Hawaii from Xenia, Ohio.
Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory said he understood the need for healing but said, "it should have been done 70 years ago."
Besides the nearly 2,400 lives lost at Pearl Harbor, the two-hour surprise attack wounded 1,178 people, sank or heavily damaged 12 U.S. warships and damaged or destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)