Pacific Postcards

The Many Meanings of the Pearl Harbor Memorial (Kalei Stambaugh)

When first walking onto the grounds of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, you are greeted by perfectly lined palm trees, a great green lawn, and are likely to see varying groups of people visiting the memorial. There are several exhibits that feature war wreckage from the events that took place on December 7th 1941, as well as interactive exhibits where you can watch and listen to audio from that day. Looking out past the buildings you will see boats taking visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial. Walking onto the long white memorial structure, you will see lists of names along the walls and oil in the water surrounding the memorial making transparent rainbow patterns. Before leaving, you can visit the gift shop and purchase a souvenir, such as your own paper crane making set, to remember your visit. 

I visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial on April 9th, 2014. Seven years later, these are the memories that stuck with me. I was fairly young and didn’t know much about Pearl Harbor or World War II and to be completely honest, would much rather have been at the beach than at some old war memorial. This was my takeaway from the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, but the significance of the memorial is different for everyone. On December 27th, 2016, United States President Barack Obama stood with the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, at the Pearl Harbor Memorial. At Pearl Harbor, with the view of the USS Arizona Memorial in the background, Abe gave a speech that provided recognition of past events that occurred at Pearl Harbor and what the memorial they were standing at represented to him. His presence and speech revealed that there can be different interpretations and meanings of the memorial for any individual. This contrasts one part of an argument made by Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez in her piece, “Wars of Memory at Pu’uloa/Pearl Harbor”. Gonzalez discusses issues with the simple nationalist historical account given at the Pearl Harbor Memorial and writes to explore the indigenous history that lies behind Pearl Harbor, once known as Pu’uloa. In part of her essay she argues that the Pearl Harbor Memorial simply functions to instill a sense of American nationalism and militarism in visitors. Abe’s speech reveals a flaw in Gonzalez’s argument in which the Pearl Harbor Memorial does not just function to promote American nationalism, but rather can allow for a variety of meanings for different people. Abe’s speech and presence at the memorial provides that various types of significance can be possessed by the memorial, such as it acting as a symbol of peace, tolerance, or reconciliation, showing that the memorial can be interpreted to be something more than a symbol of militarism or nationalism. 

Abe’s speech and presence at the Pearl Harbor Memorial describes ideas of peace and tolerance to be prevalent meanings when contextualizing the memorial. Beginning with Gonzalez’s view, she argues that “Pearl Harbor remains a vital site for history wars, and more so because it has been framed as a place of national historical importance,” (Gonzalez, 179). Gonzalez supports that the site is specifically one to communicate war history and emphasize nationalistic ideas. She even goes on to state that it insights “the kind of heroic narration that operates as a defense of US militarism,” (Gonzalez, 183). While the memorial was created from war history, the site functions more than as a voice of militarism. Gonzalez could improve this argument by also acknowledging that the site can generate a multitude of meanings outside of a militairistic or nationalistic narrative. The Prime Minister of Japan’s presence at the memorial communicates the idea of peace to be given off from the site. The Pearl Harbor Memorial was built in recognition of those lost after the bombing by Japan. Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, standing with President Obama at the US memorial, shows it to be a symbol of peace for the two nations. In his speech, Abe addresses this idea. He expresses, “And since the war, we have… upheld our vow never again to wage war. We, the people of Japan, will continue to uphold this unwavering principle, while harboring quiet pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation over these 70 years since the war ended,” (Shinzo). The former enemies, 70 years later, are able to join together in peace. Their standing in solidarity here at this memorial further symbolizes this and makes it visual, creating a meaning of peace to be established at the memorial. In his speech Abe also refers to an American soldier who had paid respect to a fallen Japanese soldier. This instance and also the US accepting Japan as a friend and ally at the memorial signifies a meaning of tolerance also to be present at the memorial. Abe quotes that, “[s]howing respect even to an enemy they fought against; trying to understand even an enemy that they hated — therein lies the spirit of tolerance,” (Shinzo). Abe indicates that the United State’s extended respect towards Japan enacts “the spirit of tolerance” to exist between the two nations and this is further symbolized by the memorial. The Japanese Prime Minister’s presence at the memorial with President Barack Obama and his speech alluding to themes of peace and tolerance reveal alternative significances to be possessed by the memorial.  The memorial does not only function to instill militaristic and nationalisitc ideas, but can also act as a symbol of peace and tolerance, demonstrating how various meanings can be derived from the site.

Abe describes his own Japanese contextualization of the Pearl Harbor Memorial to depict that it is possible to derive different meanings, outside of a militaristic view, of the memorial. Gonzalez writes that “Pearl Harbor’s identity as a place—as a military base and tourism destination—remains firmly tied to an effective narrative arc of innocence, betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph,” (Gonzalez, 179). These few military categorized narratives do not encompass the many meanings that can be developed from the Pearl Harbor Memorial. Abe demonstrates that his view of the memorial has a different meaning than the militaristic narratives of “innocence, betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph” that Gonzalez believes the memorial to communicate. Abe illustrates his own personal view. When referring to Pearl harbor he poetically states, “[t]he inlet gazing at us is tranquil as far as the eye can see. Pearl Harbor. It is precisely this beautiful inlet, shimmering like pearls, that is a symbol of tolerance and reconciliation.” (Shinzo). While Gonzalez might expect the Japanese to observe the memorial as an American militarian representation of past events, Abe describes that he rather defines it as a symbol of reconciliation between America and Japan. For the Japanese, the memorial stands as evidence of a growing relationship between America and their nation, as they were able to move on from past histories and become allies. Abe declares, “[i]t is my wish that our Japanese children, and President Obama, your American children, and indeed their children and grandchildren, and people all around the world, will continue to remember Pearl Harbor as the symbol of reconciliation.” (Shinzo). This meaning behind the memorial for Abe and likely other Japanese shows how the Pearl Harbor Memorial possesses greater significance than an establishment meant to insight patriotism.

Another factor that contributes to the different meanings of significance of the memorial that can be produced is the culture and background of the people that come to visit the memorial. To first address Gonzalez’s view, she describes her perspective of interactions with the memorial: “[t]he sunken battleship in the harbor, its sacralization as an underwater tomb, and the ritualization of remembrance around it have produced a memorial that generates and responds to unabashed patriotism, leaving little room for other kinds of narratives,” (Gonzalez, 179). Gonzalez argues that the memorial has such a strong connection to patriotism, that it discourages other narratives to be produced by people. However, this perspective does not take into account the many unique backgrounds that people come from when visiting the Pearl Harbor memorial, which can result in interpretations of the memorial that do not simply fall in the category of a nationalistic view. Shinzo Abe came to give the speech at Pearl Harbor and gave his own symbolic definition of the memorial. One factor that contributed to him developing this significance is the fact that he is a Japanese man. Japanese contextualization of Pearl Harbor and the interpretation of the memorial that is drawn from it is bound to be different from a white American or possibly someone of another ethnic background because of the various historical experiences and backgrounds. Therefore, it is an oversimplification to assume that anyone who visits the memorial would assimilate its significance with militarism. Hawaii itself is a hot tourist spot for people all over the world. Coming from extremely diverse backgrounds, these people are likely to have various interpretations of the memorial, many not likely even pertaining to American nationalism. With such diverse groups of people attending the memorial, it is likely that the visitors implement their own unique memory practices to establish their own definition of significance for the memorial. Gonzalez proceeds to argue that “Pearl Harbor encompasses and exceeds December 7, 1941, temporally and spatially, and this historiographical framing is unsettling, given the overdetermined American nationalistic narrative that pervades this place” (Gonzalez, 180). She provides that the many characterizations of this memorial and World War II are overdone in exploiting the American nationalistic view. It is true that one focus of war memorials is in generating the promotion of national and even international narratives, but this does not hinder personal perspectives. Individual cultures and backgrounds also work to insight discussions of the events and help individuals to develop their own meaning of the memorial, outside of the set nationalistic meanings. This can be seen in the example of Abe’s own perspective of the memorial’s meaning. Considering the individual background of a person is important to step out of the overarching national perspective to give way for alternative interpretations of the history and memorial.

Memorials can serve as grounds to inspire a multitude of interpretations of the site. While a common take away from the Pearl Harbor Memorial may be a sense of militarism and nationalism, there are several other meanings that individuals can apply to the memorial. When it comes to developing significance for a memorial, Abe demonstrates by his presence and in his speech that a single memorial can possess several symbolic meanings. To strengthen her argument, Gonzalez should not oversimplify the meaning of what individuals convey from the memorial. Allowing for the consideration of multiple perspectives would generate new meanings of the memorial besides the overgeneralizing militaristic, nationalistic view. Perspective is a critical and recurring theme throughout all things regarding history and should not be overlooked when cultivating interpretations.




Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, "Wars of Memory at Pu‘uloa / Pearl Harbor," Radical History Review (October 2017): 177–184.

“Shinzo Abe at Pearl Harbor: 'Rest in Peace, Precious Souls of the Fallen'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2016, 


This page has paths:

This page references: