Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed a new chapter in Japan’s “alliance of hope” 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 of Congress, Abe paid respects to shared history 70 years after the end of World War II, but he emphasized that it was time for Japan to turn the page and modernize its relationship. Tokyo, he told U.S. lawmakers, is “resolved to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world.”
“This reform is the first of its kind, and a sweeping one in our postwar history,” Abe added, referring to new laws he’s pushing through parliament that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to respond if the United States is attacked by a third country.
Abe’s appearance in Washington — accompanied by the pomp and circumstance of a state visit to the White House — was being closely monitored in Asia for signs of how the prime minister 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.
Abe, whose grandfather also served as prime minister more than half a century ago, became the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting on Capitol Hill. He hoped to use the address, along with stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the next two days, to build momentum for his ambitious restructuring of Japan’s military and economy.
Members of President Obama’s Cabinet sat in the front row, and Abe entered to a standing ovation from lawmakers. Abe’s wife, Akie, was in the gallery, sitting next to U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. The prime minister, speaking slowly in heavily accented English, spoke fondly of his personal bond with the United States and recalled living in California as a college student.
He also borrowed from the playbook of recent U.S. presidents and seated a pair of people in the gallery to make a political point — retired Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden, who as a Marine fought on Iwo Jima during the war, and Yoshitaka Shido, a member of Japan’s parliament whose grandfather, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commanded the island’s defenders.
“Enemies that fought each other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit,” Abe said.
Abe said Japan is committed to spreading prosperity through peace, and he pressed lawmakers to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive 12-nation trade deal, including the United States and Japan, that Obama has called a top priority.
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 said he hoped to use his address to help prod his own parliament to support overhauls 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, its strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that.”
Mindful that Japan’s neighbors, including China and South Korea, have been concerned about the nationalistic strain in Abe’s governance, the prime minister on his trip to Washington 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 National World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Holocaust Museum, Abe sought to pay respects to history and note the atrocities of war but also to show that nations can overcome the destruction.
On the issue of Japan’s wartime use of “comfort women” who were 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.
The Obama administration has sought to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul, but long-simmering tensions over the historical issues have made it difficult. Dozens of activists protested outside the Capitol as Abe spoke.
“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.”
Wrapping up his speech, Abe recalled the devastation of the March 2011 tsunami that devastated much of the country’s northern coastal region and killed tens of thousands.
The United States, he said, rushed “to the rescue at a scale never seen or heard before.”
With a nod to Obama’s 2008 campaign, Abe added: “The finest asset the U.S. has to give to the world was hope, is hope and must always be hope. . . . Let us call the U.S.-Japan alliance an alliance of hope.”