WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic speech to Congress celebrated the evolution of Japan’s ties with the United States , voiced “deep repentance” for his country’s role in World War II, declared that Tokyo had emergence as a global security player amid China’s rise and urged lawmakers to seal a Pacific trade deal.
Abe’s address to a joint meeting of Congress was the first by a Japanese head of state, and the spotlight fell on his choice of words regarding wartime history. Speculation had swirled that his comments would foreshadow a statement he will issue in August on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Abe offered “eternal condolences” for American lives lost in World War II and underscored what he called his country’s aim to make a “proactive contribution to peace.”
Before the address, he laid a wreath at the National World War II Memorial on Washington’s National Mall.
“With deep repentance in my heart, I stood there in silent prayers for some time,” he said of his visit to the memorial.
“History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone,” Abe told the audience, which included an American held by Japanese forces as a prisoner of war.
Japan is “resolved to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world,” Abe said. “Let the two of us, America and Japan, join our hands and do our best to make the world a better, a much better place to live.”
Abe’s congressional address was the highlight of his week-long visit to the U.S., and was aimed at showcasing the world’s third-largest economy as a close ally willing and able to help advance American economic and strategic goals in Asia and beyond. He depicted the 12-nation trade pact, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a keystone of the relationship.
Defying protesters outside the Capitol, Abe offered no new apology to females from the Korean Peninsula and other parts of Asia who were forced to provide sex for Imperial Japanese forces in military brothels before and during World War II. He instead expressed “deep remorse” for unspecified suffering caused by his nation’s wartime actions, for which the Japanese “must not avert our eyes.”
But he made an oblique reference to the controversial issue, saying “armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most.”
Abe, 60, said that Japan’s war-era military “brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries,” and that he “will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.” He was referring to a 1995 statement in which then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed feelings of “deep remorse” — as well as a “heartfelt apology” — for the suffering Japan caused, especially to people in other parts of Asia. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi delivered a statement 10 years later that used the same language.
After receiving a warm welcome from lawmakers, reflecting Japan’s status as America’s staunchest Asian ally, Abe used his speech in part to send a stern message to China, which is locked in maritime disputes with Japan and other Asian neighbors.
Referring to the “state of Asian waters,” Abe called for adherence to principles of peaceful negotiation, saying countries must not “use force or coercion to drive their claims.”
Abe’s speech was symbolic of reconciliation between former wartime foes, who are now close of allies. He spoke in slow, deliberate English and was interrupted frequently by applause and standing ovations.
He gave his address from the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Imperial Japan after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The speech coincided with Japan’s national holiday marking the birthday of its wartime Emperor, Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
Abe, who has sought to cast Japan’s aggressive wartime conduct with a less apologetic tone, was under close scrutiny for how he chose to handle history in his speech. The conservative leader instead chose to focus more on the future of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.
“We now hold high a new banner that is a ‘proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation,’ ” Abe said a day after he and President Barack Obama cemented new guidelines for Japan’s military to support U.S. forces beyond its waters.
Abe has been pursing a long-held goal of revising Japan’s pacifist postwar Constitution to loosen constraints on the Self-Defense Forces and shift the country’s security policies away from a defensive posture.
Abe began his 43-minute address by sharing his experiences living in the U.S. as a student at the University of Southern California. He recalled how much he appreciated his host family’s Italian cooking and joked about American mispronunciations of his name, winning applause and laughter from the audience.
The speech was also Abe’s opportunity to pitch skeptical lawmakers on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
He said Japan had undertaken “sweeping reforms” of its agriculture sector, to address U.S. concern about the industry’s decades-long reluctance to open its markets. He invited Congress to visit the “new Japan” and witness changes made to “old habits.”
“Japan’s agriculture is at a crossroads,” he said. “In order for it to survive, it has to change now.”
U.S. and Japanese negotiators working on an initial bilateral trade deal between the two countries, intended as a foundation for the broader accord, are stuck on issues around agriculture and automobiles. U.S. farmers want lower Japanese duties on pork, dairy products and rice, while Japan wants a 2.5 percent tariff on cars exported to America to be eliminated.
Lawmakers “are pretty well positioned” on the trade deal, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said after the speech. “But a few changed minds can make a difference.”
Reps. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, and Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, who cochaired a caucus of liberal lawmakers, are likely not among them. The trade deal must include “enforceable protections against currency manipulators,” including Japan, they said in a statement.
“If the administration wants the U.S. to lead good trade deals, we must include rules to stop Japan and other countries from inflating the value of the dollar,” they said.