WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he hopes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will show “sincerity” in respect to historical issues in his upcoming speech before the U.S. Congress.
Armitage, a well-known Japan expert, made the comment in a recent interview, saying the speech Abe delivers during his visit to the United States, which starts April 26, may help improve Japan’s relations with its neighbors.
“The first and most important message is the respect of the United States for the people of Japan” expressed by having Abe become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint gathering of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, Armitage said Monday.
He noted that the audience for Abe’s speech will extend far beyond the U.S., and many will be “looking to see if Mr. Abe can put history behind him.”
“It’s not a speech to Americans only. It’s a speech to the world,” Armitage said. “I think the most important thing for Mr. Abe is not specific words, but sincerity.”
After Abe’s recent comments in an interview with the Washington Post, Armitage said he is confident the prime minister realizes the importance of speaking sincerely.
In an interview with the Post, Abe referred to “comfort women,” a euphemism for those who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, as victims of “human trafficking” and said his “heart aches” for them. He did not say who was responsible for victimizing the women.
“For American ears, those were very strong words,” Armitage said. Heartache is “a very big concept,” he said, and “it’s sincere.”
“He has to be sincere to all those, including Japanese citizens who suffered during the war. And there are some Americans, though we suffered much less than many others. There are Koreans, there are Chinese, there are Dutch, there are Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans. . . . Lots of people suffered. So it’s a wide audience.”
Abe’s congressional speech will be closely watched, as it comes ahead of his planned statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“Japan has had a great 70 years. We want at least another great 70 years,” Armitage said. “In order to focus on the future, we have to put these questions down.”
Despite calls from some South Koreans for Abe to clearly apologize for his nation’s wartime conduct in his April 29 speech on Capitol Hill, Armitage said if Abe makes a sincere speech, there will be many people in South Korea who will think that Park Geun-hye, their president, should be able to speak to the Japanese prime minister.
On the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Armitage said Washington is ready to listen if Japan suggests any changes to the plan.
“Americans are going to let Japan take the lead on this,” Armitage said, referring to the standoff between the Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture over the project to close the base in the city of Ginowan after building and opening a replacement airstrip on the Henoko coast in the city of Nago, another city in Okinawa.
“If the government of Japan comes to us with another idea, then we’ll certainly listen,” he said.
The Japanese government has repeatedly said relocating the Futenma base from crowded Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coast is the only solution from the viewpoint of removing the dangers associated with the base.
But the current plan may not be “the only option forever,” Armitage suggested.
“Technology could change that,” he explained. “The situation in the area could change.”
He stressed that any changes to the plan “have to be done cautiously.”
“We don’t want to make changes that send a wrong message to people who might not share our mutual views,” he said, naming China and North Korea in particular. “I’m not saying we have leeway (to allow the plan to be changed),” he added.
On a possible visit to the United States by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, Armitage said the United States “will of course treat him with respect and listen to him.”
“Both Japanese bureaucrats and American bureaucrats take some blame” for the stalemate over the Futenma relocation plan, he said.
On other issues, Armitage said there are expectations for Abe to issue a “forward-leaning” statement about the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral free trade negotiations during his talks with U.S. President Barack Obama.
He said he hopes the United States will use Abe’s visit to “force some action” on legislation for the trade promotion authority, which gives the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals. The TPP is important in terms of Asia, Armitage added.
Amid expectations among Japanese for Obama to visit the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he goes to Japan next year, Armitage said: “I don’t know what the president will do, but I personally would support a visit to Hiroshima, Nagasaki.