Remembering Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i: A Reflection on an Annual Workshop for U.S. and Japanese Secondary School Teachers

Every year on December 8, I ask my first-year undergraduate students if they can think of anything significant about that day. Some students point out that it is the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Others say it is the day John Lennon was shot to death in 1980.

Obviously the two incidents did not actually happen on the same date—Pearl Harbor was attacked at 7:55 a.m. Hawai‘i time on December 7th and Lennon was shot at around 10:50 p.m. in New York City on December 8th. In Japan, however, the Pearl Harbor attack is remembered by Japan time—3:25 a.m. of December 8th—whereas Lennon’s murder is remembered by the U.S. Eastern Standard Time, and it causes confusion among the students.

This setting of the date is symbolic of the way in which the attack on Pearl Harbor is defined and understood in Japan. It is primarily seen from the Japanese perspective. Every high school history textbook refers to the 8th rather than the 7th as the day of the attack and the start of the war against the United States. The cause of the attack is often explained by reference to various external pressures—the U.S. oil embargo, the U.S. decision to aid England and others with the Lend-Lease Act, and the formation of the ABCD line. The mounting pressures against Japan, the story goes, made the Japanese military believe that there was no alternative but to launch a surprise attack, even though in retrospect this is understood to have been an unwise decision which resulted in the terrible suffering of millions of people.

It may not be surprising that the history curriculum in Japanese secondary schools mostly focuses on the views of the Japanese military and the subsequent impact of the attack on Japan. As in many other countries, history education in Japan is heavily inflected by the logic of the nation-state. While there are many important scholarly works that critique the nationalist orientation of historical memory today, their impact remains relatively limited in Japan and elsewhere, especially because of the nation-centered (and often censored) historical narratives propagated in school education and by popular memory. Moreover, modern wars among nations are a particularly difficult subject to teach in schools from multiple perspectives because shared popular memory—silently and yet powerfully—urges teachers and students to identify with the nation to which they feel most attached. For example, few U.S. high school history classes would teach the Spanish-American war from the Spanish perspective, World War II from the German perspective, or the Gulf War from the Iraqi point of view. It’s no surprise that Pearl Harbor in Japan is taught in a similarly nationally-oriented fashion.

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Between 2005 and 2009, I was involved in a teachers’ workshop focusing on Pearl Harbor. It started as an NEH project, designed to help U.S. secondary school teachers deepen their understanding of key historic sites in the United States. However, the organizers were interested in going beyond the conventional “American workshop” by including Japanese teachers, so that the participants could discuss how the attack was perceived and taught in Japan as well as in the United States.[1] It was designed as a forum in which the descendants of former enemies could talk about the attack and exchange ideas about how to explain this history to the next generation, both American and Japanese.

This may seem like a rather simple idea in this age of globalized communication. Hawai‘i has been a prime tourist destination for both Americans and Japanese for decades. There are plenty of visitors from both countries to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, located in Pearl Harbor, every day. But do they interact and talk to each other about the surprise attack? Not really. In fact, there have been few, if any, opportunities for the two sides to share their understanding of this seminal event in the history of the two nations. As Emily Rosenberg has shown, Pearl Harbor is constantly invoked in U.S. popular culture, to the extent that it is considered an “icon.”[2] The specter of Pearl Harbor has appeared repeatedly, as in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, when men as different in their political outlooks as George W. Bush and Paul Krugman compared the terrorist attacks with Pearl Harbor. And when the earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast region of Japan in March 2011, WNBA star Cappie Pondexter caused an uproar by tweeting, “u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can’t expect anything less.” Many Japanese pundits and the media in general have, in turn, reacted strongly to such rhetoric, pointing out that Pearl Harbor was a strategic attack on a military target executed by a highly trained Navy and should not be confused with random killings by a few brainwashed terrorists or with unpredictable natural disasters. But these statements from both sides are mostly one-way pronouncements, hardly ever accompanied by any substantive discussion between the two sides. It is as if Pearl Harbor is so sensitive an issue that the U.S. and Japan can’t see eye to eye, even after more than a half century of strong political and military alliance as well as close cultural relations.

In this context, the teachers’ workshop was a small step toward starting an international discussion on Pearl Harbor at the grass-roots level. Entitled “Pearl Harbor: History Memory, Memorial,” it was an attempt to offer secondary school teachers in Japan and the United States the kind of knowledge and tools necessary to nurture students who would view the past from multiple perspectives and in imaginative ways. Between 2005 and 2009, a total of 345 secondary school teachers from the U.S. and 58 from Japan were selected for the workshops, which met in Honolulu each summer for a week to revisit the attack and share their thoughts with each other. Participants went on fieldtrips to the actual attack sites, listened to various lectures, met with survivors of the attack, engaged in discussions, and devised lesson plans. They also talked about a wide variety of things—Pearl Harbor, their work as teachers, their families, and life in general in their countries—over lunch, dinner, and beer.

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When the teachers initially arrived in Honolulu, both sides assumed that the workshop would teach them about significant differences between the U.S. and Japan. And indeed, there were quite a few differences. But there were also a surprising number of similarities, and I would like to note those here before I discuss the differences.

One of the things they shared was a relatively narrow approach to Pearl Harbor. Both groups were accustomed to seeing Pearl Harbor as a military event resulting from a failed political process. Few participants, if any, had thought of teaching Pearl Harbor as a social and cultural event that had significance outside the bombed harbor. For example, the internment of Japanese Americans, while a well-known fact both in the U.S. and Japan, was not a topic intimately associated with Pearl Harbor attack in the minds of many teachers, who saw the former as a topic for domestic U.S. social history and the latter as a topic for diplomatic and international history.

Similarly, only a small number of teachers knew that martial law was proclaimed in Hawai‘i immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Many were struck by the irony of the American determination to fight for the preservation of freedom and democracy while at the same time imposing martial law in its own territory for a period of almost three years.

Moreover, very few teachers had ever thought of Pearl Harbor from the perspective of Native Hawaiians. When the Hawaiian history scholar Jonathan Osorio introduced the name “pu‘uloa,” which was used by Native Hawaiians for generations to denote the area that is currently known as Pearl Harbor, most of the teachers were stunned to realize the simple fact that Pearl Harbor was not always “Pearl Harbor.” Osorio pointed out that the Japanese attack was not the first time the harbor had suffered from an invasion by an alien force. The United States had long ago appropriated this harbor, a place where the Native Hawaiian deity Ka‘ahupāhau is said to have lived, to construct one of the largest military complexes in the world. This kind of indigenous perspective had been entirely absent for most teachers, for whom Pearl Harbor suddenly appeared in 1941, as if it had had no previous existence.[3]

The lack of these perspectives, a lack shared by both the U.S. and Japanese teachers, was due largely to a broader curricular trend that delimits the Japanese attack within a specific temporal and geographical framework, explaining it as an incident taking place at a particular location (Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i), happening on a particular time and day (December 7th in U.S. and December 8th in Japan). The teachers’ workshop attempted to rectify this by liberating Pearl Harbor, as it were, from this conventional military narrative and encouraging the teachers to make connections with other historical phenomena related both directly and indirectly, so as to see the attack from more multilayered and multifaceted perspectives.

At the same time, the U.S. and Japanese teachers had to bridge many differences. One of the most striking rifts concerned their understanding of war memorials. For the majority of U.S. teachers, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial was a site that reminded them of the importance of defending the nation and the ultimate sacrifice the citizens have to pay to protect their freedom. It was a site to celebrate one’s patriotism and nationalism.  Most of the Japanese teachers, however, saw the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial as a peace memorial that denounced war and violence. This view is in large part due to the way they have been conditioned to see war-related memorials and museums in Japan. Aside from some notable exceptions, such as the Yushukan Museum run by the Yasukuni Shrine (where few, if any, public school teachers would dare take their students for fear of triggering public controversy), the vast majority of influential WWII-related memorials and museums are defined in Japan as “peace museums” and “peace memorials” (for example, the “Okinawa Prefectural Peace Museum” and the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum”). Most Japanese thus view the significance of war memorials and museums in this vein and teachers use them as an educational resource to emphasize the importance of peace to their students. Many participants from Japan therefore were shocked to find out that Americans viewed war memorials, including the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, literally as “war memorials” and not necessarily as sites that intended to promote peace education.

Another notable difference surrounded the trajectory of the war. For U.S. teachers, Pearl Harbor was the beginning of the long war with Japan that ended gloriously on September 2nd, 1945, when the Japanese accepted their unconditional surrender on board the U.S.S. Missouri. Despite the fact that it was initially a defeat, Pearl Harbor was thus the opening chapter of what later came to be remembered as a “good war.” In contrast, for teachers from Japan, Pearl Harbor was the beginning of a transpacific war that ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th (respectively) in the final year. To them, Pearl Harbor was a tragic event that led to an even greater (atomic) tragedy; or put differently, it was the opening chapter of a story that ended in horror. This gap manifested itself visibly in the ways in which Japanese and some U.S. teachers viewed the atomic bombs. For Japanese teachers, Pearl Harbor was almost naturally connected with Hiroshima and Nagasaki because both were testaments to the horror and folly of fighting wars. For some U.S. teachers, particularly those who subscribed to the popular atomic-bombs-saved-American-lives narrative, that connection seemed insincere and spurious, because Pearl Harbor was an unjust attack while the dropping of the atomic bombs were, however unfortunate, a necessary and ultimately justifiable means to end the war.

Such differences left some Japanese teachers enormously frustrated. The fact that they were generally outnumbered (because of different kinds of funds available to U.S. and Japanese teachers) and also “out-languaged” (because many did not feel entirely comfortable or confident in using English) added to their sense of frustration. However, often during the course of the week important shifts took place in the attitude of participants from both sides. Spending hours together every day, the Japanese and American teachers began to communicate while also recognizing and respecting their differences. One Japanese teacher later recalled[4]:

I was struck by a drastic change in the attitude of a teacher from the American south. Initially he was clearly hostile to me even though we had hardly talked to each other. Neither did he seem terribly interested in “multiple perspectives.” But this man said at the time of the collaborative presentation [which took place at the end of the workshop] that even though he had “never even thought of incorporating Japanese perspectives in class until now,” he had “learned so many things during the week that now he would like to start including many things.” The statement as well as the change that took place in him came about because of the workshop.

The recognition of differences, linked with attempts at understanding and bridging the gap, was one of the most rewarding aspects of the workshop. By the end of the week, some participants had formed strong bonds with each other. The time spent together with American teachers inspired many Japanese teachers to incorporate new teaching ideas and methods into their classrooms. Some of them even managed to do collaborative teaching projects connecting the two countries, using emails and blogs.[5]

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The teachers’ workshop was thus generally a great success, but it also revealed the challenges in organizing an international workshop of this kind. I would like to note two issues here before closing.

The first was the bi-national framework of the workshop, when in fact the attack on Pearl Harbor needs to be understood from a more international perspective. While the organizers tried their best to expand the scope of the understanding by introducing different elements such as the Native Hawaiian and Japanese American perspectives, the discussion nevertheless revolved primarily around Hawai‘i, the U.S., and Japan. The Japanese attack on December 7th and immediately thereafter, however, was obviously not limited to Pearl Harbor and in fact included many other places. The landing on the Malay Peninsula and the occupation of Guam are well known cases, but there are other events such as the Japanese attack on Howland Island, almost two thousand miles from Hawai‘i, on December 8th, which killed two young Native Hawaiians who had been placed there by the Department of Commerce to secure American presence. And it goes without saying that the subsequent battles in many of the Pacific islands, following on from their colonization by the Japanese and western powers prior to the war, have had a tremendous impact on the islands and the lives of their indigenous peoples to this day. Any discussion of the Pearl Harbor attack must encompass viewpoints from other areas that were directly and indirectly affected by the Japanese bombing. However, this broader perspective was often lost in the context of the U.S.-Japan binary discussion.

The second was the more theoretical problem concerning the naturalization of the concept of the nation-state. While the teacher workshop purportedly tried to encourage the teachers to rethink the meaning of nation-states and their role in shaping historical viewpoints, the workshop simultaneously essentialized the nation-centered framework by often rationalizing the differences between Japanese and American teachers as stemming from differences in their national origins. The workshop, in other words, paradoxically reified the concept of nation-states even though it questioned the uncritical approach to the nation-centered narratives of both countries.

These two major challenges surfaced every year. While other problems could be dealt with, thanks to the efforts of the organizers, these two were probably the most important and difficult issues that the organizers were ultimately unable to overcome—first because of the lack of funding and logistical support (including recruiting) and second because of the theoretical difficulty of undermining the conceptual framework of the nation-state while relying on that very framework to organize the workshop. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, I believe in the merit of this kind of workshop for scholars as it will undoubtedly encourage young people to broaden their understanding of the past historical events.

The seventieth anniversary of the Japanese attack will certainly not end the discussion over Pearl Harbor. As an “icon” of American society, the question of how the attack by the Japanese should be remembered and narrated will continue to challenge historians in the future. Through workshops like the one discussed in this essay, I hope we will carry on our collective debate about how we “Remember Pearl Harbor” and other events in history.



[1] The workshop was a collaborative project involving, among others, the East West Center, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Park Service, Pacific Historical Parks (which funded the participation of Japanese teachers), Freeman Foundation (which also sponsored Japanese teachers), and Japan America Society of Hawai‘i. The attempt to bring Japanese teachers was led by cultural anthropologist Geoffrey White, who is a board member of PHP.

[2] Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 173.

[3] Jon Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, “Memorializing Pu‘uloa and Remembering Pearl Harbor,” in Keith L. Camacho and Setsu Shigematsu, eds., Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 3-14.

[4] The original was written in Japanese and this translation was done by the author of this essay.

[5] Examples of some of these are compiled in Yujin Yaguchi, Takeo Morimo, and Kyoko Nakayama, eds., Shinjuwan wo kataru—rekishi, kioku, kyoiku [Narrating Pearl Harbor: History, Memory, and Education] (Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Press, 2011).