WASHINGTON – When Shinzo Abe becomes the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, he will face two formidable challenges: convincing skeptical lawmakers about a proposed Pacific trade pact and easing concerns about his views on Tokyo’s wartime past.
The Obama administration has rolled out the red carpet for Abe, seeking to showcase deeper defense ties and advance the long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as the two allies work to counter China’s rising power in the region.
But with many of Obama’s fellow Democrats reluctant to back his trade agenda for fear that it will hurt U.S. jobs, Abe could have a hard time selling them on the need to break down trade barriers with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries involved in the negotiations.
While Abe is sure to receive a warm welcome in Congress as a reliable U.S. partner, the conservative leader — who has sought to cast Japan’s aggressive World War II-era conduct in a less-apologetic tone — can expect intense scrutiny of his speech for how he handles history.
The issue remains a sensitive one for Asian neighbors, especially China and U.S. ally South Korea, nearly 70 years after Japan’s defeat.
Some American critics, including politicians and war veterans, have urged Abe to use the speech to make a strong public expression of contrition about World War II to erase concerns that he is trying to dilute past official statements of remorse by Japanese leaders.
Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat, recently sent a bipartisan letter to the Japanese ambassador to Washington asking Abe to “squarely face history” during his speech.
Abe will address Congress from the spot where President Franklin Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Imperial Japan after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The speech will coincide with Japan’s national holiday marking the birthday of its wartime emperor, Hirohito, who is known posthumously as Showa.
If Abe sticks to the script he has followed since launching his U.S. trip earlier this week, he is likely to uphold previous Japanese apologies, including a 1995 landmark statement by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, but will probably stop short of directly issuing any new ones.
When asked at a joint news conference with Obama on Tuesday whether he would make a full apology for Japan’s wartime actions, Abe repeated what he said Monday.
“I am deeply pained to think about the ‘comfort women’ who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking,” he said. “This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors.”
“Comfort women” is a euphemism for Korean and other Asian women forced into prostitution at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Many Japanese conservatives have said there is no proof of direct state involvement in kidnapping the women.
Abe is under pressure from critics to allay concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan’s history of wartime aggression. His 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead but is also where a number of convicted war criminals are memorialized, angered Seoul and Beijing.
But Abe’s conservative domestic allies feel fresh apologies are unneeded.
Obama’s aides, mindful of the regional tensions stoked by Abe’s ambivalent views of history, have insisted Washington wants Abe to deal with history in a forthright, constructive way. They have declined to say whether they recommended any language for Abe’s speech, which his aides say he will deliver in English.
An official traveling with Abe said there was “no notable discussion” of the speech in talks with Obama on Tuesday, except for the president saying he looked forward to hearing it.
Obama was to follow presidential custom and would not be present.
On Tuesday, Abe and Obama agreed to strengthen the two countries’ defense alliance on a global scale under recently revised defense cooperation guidelines.
They also cited progress in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks but noted hurdles remain before a breakthrough can be reached.
“The Japan-U.S. alliance, based on an unwavering bond, is essential to the peace and stability of the world,” Abe told a joint news conference after his meeting with Obama that lasted about two hours. “There is no doubt deterrence will be strengthened further.”
Obama said: “We are two global partners.”
The two leaders adopted a joint statement, saying the bilateral relationship “stands as a model of the power of reconciliation.” Former adversaries “have become steadfast allies,” the statement said ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The latest meeting of Abe and Obama “marks a historic step forward in transforming the U.S.-Japan partnership,” the statement said.
At a “two plus two” meeting of the countries’ foreign and defense ministers on Monday, Japan and the United States revised their bilateral defense cooperation guidelines for the first time in 18 years.
The revised guidelines “will update our respective roles and missions within the Alliance and enable Japan to expand its contributions to regional and global security,” the statement said.
At the news conference, Obama confirmed the U.S. obligation to protect the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea under the bilateral security treaty.
“Article 5 (of the treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration,” the U.S. president said. The islets are also claimed by China.
The statement did not directly point the finger at China for its expansion in the East and South China Seas or Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
However, it said: “State actions that undermine respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity by attempting to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion pose challenges to the international order.”
At the news conference, Obama said he supports China’s peaceful rise. He also said he does not think that Beijing will consider a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance a provocation.
Abe also said it was important to implement the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, now located in Ginowan, Okinawa, to the Henoko district in Nago in the same prefecture.
Building a replacement airstrip for Futenma in Henoko will help remove the dangers arising from the Futenma base, Abe said. The relocation plan is widely unpopular in Okinawa, where voters elected a governor in the fall who ran on a platform opposing it.
At the meeting, Obama and Abe also reaffirmed that they would cooperate to deal with North Korean issues, such as its nuclear and missile programs and the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang’s spies in the 1970s and ’80s.
The meeting on Tuesday was the leaders’ first since November, when they held talks in Brisbane, Australia.