It’s what Abe says
It looks like Shinzo Abe is set to become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress during his visit to the United States next month. It has become a Capitol Hill tradition to bestow its biggest honor on a visiting foreign dignitary by lending him or her the podium at a joint session of Congress. Unlike South Korean presidents, no Japanese prime ministers have been so honored by Congress because they represented a country that had caused global war.
But it is startling to see that the first Japanese leader for whom Washington chose to bend the long-held rule is someone who has provoked trepidation among his neighbors with revisionist historical views and controversial actions.
U.S. legislators also have not explained why they will receive Abe, but shot down the possibility of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi addressing a joint session of Congress in 2006 because they were not happy with his visits to the war-linked Yasukuni shrine.
Abe angered neighboring countries by visiting the Yasukuni shrine in 2013. We can only assume Washington is allowing Abe’s address as a declaration of a stronger alliance as part of the commemorations for this summer’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. We cannot meddle with whom Congress wants to invite as guest speakers.
What matters is what is contained in the speech. The meaning of Abe’s address to the joint session of Congress could be entirely different depending on what he says. He could be seen in a different light if he proclaims that he wholeheartedly supports the landmark 1995 statement by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologizing for Japan’s wartime aggression and offers sincere remorse for the pain the past imperialist government caused for other Asian people.
If Abe’s address takes on such a tone, it could break the ice between Seoul and Tokyo and help to normalize the traditional tripartite alliance among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. But if his address falls short of a sincere apology, both Tokyo and Washington could face a backlash. Washington could be criticized for giving impunity to a country that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for past aggressions.
The outcome of the symbolic speech depends on the role of the U.S. Congress. It must try to persuade the Japanese government and leader to use the podium to restore ties with neighbors in Asia and reinforce his country’s reputation as a pacifist nation.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 21, Page 26