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Hope and History: Shinzo Abe’s Speech to Congress

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Tokyo Report

Hope and History: Shinzo Abe’s Speech to Congress

The Japanese prime minster’s anticipated speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

Hope and History: Shinzo Abe’s Speech to Congress
Credit: Screenshot of Abe’s speech to Congress

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered his long-awaited speech (in English) to a joint session of the U.S. Congress today, becoming the first Japanese prime minister to do so. Abe’s speech took on epic proportions due to the timing – with his August 15 statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II looming, analysts are looking to his congressional speech for clues on what the “Abe Statement” will look like. Meanwhile, Abe himself wanted to use his speech to highlight the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, both in the security realm and on trade issues. Abe would use his speech to make the case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which faces steep opposition in Congress (ironically, largely among President Barack Obama’s own Democratic Party).

Below, I examine each of these elements in more detail.

Japan Defense Reforms and the U.S. Alliance

As expected, Abe focused most his remarks on the future (rather than the past) of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe spoke at some length about the common values the two countries share – “the rule of law, democracy, and freedom” — with anecdotes about his own personal embrace of democratic values during his time as a student in California.

Abe celebrated the transition of the U.S.-Japan relationship from wartime adversaries to allies and partners. Japan, Abe said, “made the right decision” in the aftermath of the war by choosing “to ally itself with the U.S., and to go forward as a member of the Western world.” Abe claimed a joint victory with the United States and “like-minded democracies” in the Cold War. “No new concept should ever be necessary for the alliance that connects us, the biggest and the second biggest democratic powers in the free world, in working together,” Abe said.

As for the future, Abe emphasized Japan’s support for the U.S. rebalance to Asia. He also pointed to Japan’s contributions to that strategy, though deeper partnerships with Australia, ASEAN, India, and South Korea. Abe also highlighted Japan’s past contributions to the Gulf War and peacekeeping operations around the world.

Abe explained Japan’s own defense reforms, which are still making their way through the Japanese legislature. Abe told Congress that “we are determined to enact all necessary bills by this coming summer.” Those reforms, and Japan’s future approach, are part of Abe’s plan for making a “proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation” – a phrase he emphasized by repeating twice.

The legislative aspect will allow Japan to live up to the recently released new defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Those changes, Abe said, are “necessary to build peace, more reliable peace in the region.” He called the new defense guidelines “historic.” In addition to traditional security challenges, the new guidelines will allow the United States and Japan to “face up to and jointly tackle those challenges that are new” — including “terrorism, infectious diseases, natural disasters, and climate change.”

Notably, there was no direct mention of China as a security concern in Abe’s speech. Instead, Abe spoke generally of upholding stability in Asia’s maritime domain: “We must make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans seas of peace and freedom, where all follow the rule of law.”

Rather than framing the alliance as one of containment, Abe framed it as a proactive force for “the rule of law, respect for human rights, and freedom.” Abe concluded his remarks by labeling the alliance the “alliance of hope.” “Let the two of us, America and Japan, join our hands together and do our best to make the world a better, a much better, place to live,” Abe said.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Abe also made his pitch to Congress on the importance of the TPP. Rather than framing it as a race against China to make global trade rules for the 21st century (as Obama has taken to doing recently), Abe spoke more generally about trade practices that threaten U.S. and Japanese values. “In the Pacific market, we cannot overlook sweat shops or burdens on the environment. Nor can we simply allow free riders on intellectual property.” Advancing TPP, in Abe’s formulation, is a way the United States and Japan “can spread our shared values around the world.” For Abe, that is source of the “awesome” strategic value of the negotiations.

As for the specifics of the deal, Abe said that “the goal is near” in the U.S.-Japan negotiations. He also spoke at some length about Japan’s willingness to reform, particularly in its agricultural sector (long a source of U.S. complaints about protectionism). “We are bringing great reforms toward the agriculture policy that’s been in place for decades,” Abe said. He also promised to be the “spearhead” in helping to break “rock-solid regulations in such sectors as medicine and energy.” When it comes to reforms, Abe said, “Japan is right in the middle of a quantum leap.”

History Issues

While Abe’s main focus was on the present and the future, he did not neglect the past. Abe and his advisors could not have been unaware of the intense scrutiny this speech’s approach to historical issues would face, and Abe devoted a not insignificant portion of his speech to history. The most relevant section for those seeking affirmations that Abe will not ‘whitewash’ history is below:

Post war, we started out on our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.

That last sentence was followed by a burst of applause from the attendees. Abe added that, because of the past, Japan “must all the more contribute in every respect to the development of Asia.”

In addition to his words about “deep remorse,” Abe also made a symbolic gesture of remembrance. Just before his congressional address, Abe visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. and laid a wreath next to the Freedom Wall. That moment formed the backbone of the section of his speech dealing with the legacy of the war. Seeing the stars that represented fallen American soldiers, Abe said, “I reflected upon the lost dreams and lost futures of those young Americans… with deep repentance in my heart, I stood there in silent prayers for some time.” It was in this section that Abe came closest to the sort of official apology his critics have demanded:

My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.

Abe stayed away, however, from the inflammatory issues of “comfort women,” the euphemistic name for the women forced to provide sexual services for Japanese soldiers. When asked about the issue during his joint press conference with President Barack Obama yesterday, Abe said he is “deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking.” He also promised that his government “upholds the Kono Statement [which official apologized to comfort women] and has no intention to revise it.”

That’s likely not enough to mollify critics, who have been active in bringing attention to historical issues. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), one of the most outspoken critics of Japan’s handling of the issue, invited Yong Soo Lee, a Korean “comfort woman,” to attend Abe’s speech as his guest. Honda wrote an op-ed for CNN earlier this week, telling Lee’s story and calling on Abe “to do right by these women, and issue an unequivocal and irrefutable apology” during his address to Congress. Lee herself also spoke to reporters on the Capitol lawn on Tuesday and was profiled in a Washington Post story published on April 22.

Abe’s speech hit all the expected notes: praising the U.S.-Japan alliances, explaining the necessity of proposed defense reforms, arguing for TPP, and indicating remorse for historical issues (without the sort of direct language of apology that critics have demanded).