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The true meaning of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States

by Mitsuru Kitano

WASHINGTON — Most of the reporting and reviews surrounding the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States on April 26-27 focused on the issue of North Korea or the wartime “comfort women,” but in truth, the significance of the visit was much broader.

First, the 90-minute summit meeting at Camp David on April 27 was of great significance to both Abe and U.S. President George W. Bush in that they confirmed the “irreplaceable Japan-U.S. alliance” and committed to strengthening it further.

Characteristic of the meeting was that the two leaders devoted about half of the 90-minute meeting to their tete-a-tete talk. Abe told Bush that he would strive to move Japan beyond the postwar regime as the mission of the Abe administration and that he was determined to carry through structural reforms in the economic area.

The fact that the prime minister of Japan and the president of the U.S. laid bare their respective political convictions and talked frankly about what they are trying to achieve through their policies deepens the Japan-U.S. alliance sustained by our shared values of freedom and democracy. This is what was achieved at the summit meeting at Camp David.

It was also important that their meeting demonstrated that the scope of the Japan-U.S. alliance is not confined to politics and security in a narrow sense. During the summit, documents involving such areas as economy, climate change and nuclear energy were agreed upon, and the agreement to work together to help stabilize the greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere has a significant influence on international society hereafter.

Second, the meeting between Abe and congressional leaders had a substantive meaning to further strengthen the ties between Japan and the U.S. Among those attending this meeting were the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Minority Leader John Boehner, as well as such influential senators as Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens, who have personally valued the Japan-U.S. relationship.

The last time a Japanese prime minister conducted a joint dialogue with Congressional leaders during a visit to the U.S. was in May 1999, during the visit of then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

The congressional leaders made the following points during the meeting: that there was a consensus in Congress that transcends party lines on the importance of the Japan-U.S. relationship; that they were delighted that the activity of Japanese companies in the U.S. has generated a great deal of employment in this country; that the U.S. Congress held Japan’s contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan in very high regard; and that it was important that Japan and the U.S. continue to work together on these issues in the international society.

Speaker Pelosi summed up the significance of the meeting in her closing remarks. “It is very rare that the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House and Senate gather together to meet with a prime minister of another country. This evidences the respect of these congressional leaders present for Prime Minister Abe and our strong desire to further strengthen Japan-U.S. relations.”

Third, this visit by Abe to the U.S. was a “future-oriented” one that emphasized his encounter with the future supporters of the Japan-U.S. relationship. He chose to have an opportunity to encourage them as the last program of his visit.

Over the past 20 years, the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program has dispatched approximately 22,000 young American men and women to Japan as English language teachers, often in small, rural towns. This program has contributed to English language education in Japan, and at the same time, it has cultivated young Americans who know every corner of Japan.

“I expect you will underlay the Japan-U.S. relationship in the future,” Abe told the 57 JET alumni who had come from all across the U.S.

In Japan, some concern has been expressed that the number of Americans who are knowledgeable about Japan has been declining. One response to this issue was Abe’s meeting with these veterans of the JET Program. There are indeed people in the U.S. who know Japan well, and Abe sent a message that Japan values the network with these people.

Fourth, the fact that Abe visited the U.S. with his wife broadened the width of summit diplomacy. Mrs. Abe visited cultural and educational facilities in Washington. She also deepened interchanges with the president and Mrs. Bush and gave them a favorable impression. “Prime Minister Abe married very well,” Bush said. Adding to the fact that the two leaders came to call each other “George” and “Shinzo” (this was proposed by Bush), it was a big plus for bilateral relations that this personal relationship of trust was built.

Currently, the Japan-U.S. alliance has transcended a bilateral relationship between Japan and the U.S.; it is an alliance for Asia and the world. It is sustained by multifaceted people-to-people relationships. Should the debate on the results of Abe’s visit to the U.S. be confined to a small number of issues and fail to notice its wide impact, the significant outcome of this visit will be overlooked.