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In speech to Congress, Japan’s Abe outlines more assertive role for nation

Lawmakers attending a joint meeting of Congress stood and applauded on April 29, 2015, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered condolences "to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II." (Video: AP)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed a new chapter in Japan's alliance with the United States on Wednesday as he sketched out his vision for a more robust role for his nation in the security and prosperity of Asia.

In a historic address to a joint meeting on Congress, Abe told U.S. lawmakers that Japan is "resolved to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world."

The address was afforded the pomp and circumstance befitting the United States' closest ally in Asia. Members of President Obama's cabinet and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy sat in the front row, and Abe entered to a standing ovation from lawmakers.

[Opinion: Abe’s quest to revive Japan]

Abe's wife, Akie, was in the gallery, and the prime minister warmly recalled his student days when he spent time living in California.

Abe's appearance in Washington this week is being closely watched back in Asia for signs of how the prime minister, who has pushed Japan toward a more active role on the world stage, envisions his country's resurgence in the face of China's rising influence. The two powers have sought to build stronger economic ties, but they also have clashed in a series of maritime disputes, along with other countries in the region.

In his remarks to Congress, Abe emphasized Japan's long alliance with the United States, and he highlighted new partnerships, including a multilateral trade deal that includes the United States. Obama has made the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) one of his top legislative priorities despite intense opposition from many Democrats.

[Obama shifts his pitch for the Trans-Pacific Partnership]

The United States and Japan have not agreed on a handful of critical areas in the trade talks, including on agriculture and automobiles. But Abe hoped to use his address to help prod his own parliament to support reforms that would pave the way for an agreement next month.

"The TPP goes far beyond just economic benefit," Abe said. "It is also about our security. Long-term, it's strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that."

Abe's visit to Washington came 70 years after the end of World War II, and he has been trying to emphasize that Japan intends to pursue a peaceful role in world affairs, even as it becomes more assertive. In visits to the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Holocaust Museum, Abe sought to pay respects to history and the atrocities of war but also to symbolize that nation's can overcome the destruction.

Yet on the issue of Japan's wartime use of "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery in Korea and China, Abe alluded only obliquely to the issue in his speech to Congress. South Korean diplomats in Washington had lobbied the White House and members of Congress to demand that Abe issue a direct apology for Japan's role.

[Japan’s wartime past still a volatile issue as prime minister visits Obama]

"Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most," Abe said. "In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses."