Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the United States from April 26 to May 3. In addition to visiting Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Abe will stay in Washington, D.C., from April 27 to 29. While in Washington, he will have a summit meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and deliver an address at a Joint Meeting of the U.S. Congress. Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister in U.S. history to deliver a speech at the U.S. Congress.
Already, there has been a lot of talk about what the “deliverables” are going to be. Will the two countries reach a bilateral agreement in regards to the Trans-Pacific Partnership? What will the final agreement on the revised Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation look like? Abe’s scheduled speech to Congress is also attracting a great deal of attention. Will he address Japan’s wartime past in his speech? And if so, how? Will he use such terms as “aggression” and “remorse”? Will his address include some reference to the Kono and/or Murayama statements?
It is easy to scrutinize these specific issues and use them as the benchmark against which to assess whether upcoming Abe’s visit will succeed. However, while the achievements on specific issues are important, it is also just as important to put Abe’s upcoming visit in a broader context of the history of Japan-U.S. relations. In short, his visit near the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II provides both countries a great opportunity to raise the bilateral relationship to a new height of global partnership.
Indeed, the history of Japan-U.S. relations since the early 20th century is a story of a reconciliation and transformation. Japan and the United States fought a bloody war during World War II. Since Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, the relationship between Tokyo and Washington has undergone a profound change from relations between hostile enemies to, in the words of the late Senator Mike Mansfield, “the most important bilateral relationship bar none.” The relationship has stood the test of time through trade friction in the 1970s and 1980s, the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of translational and global security challenges in the post-Cold War, post- 9/11 era.
As the international systems experience tectonic shifts in power balances, it is an opportune time for Abe to discuss his vision of Japan — the way Japan was, how Japan reemerged as one of the staunchest supporters of international peace, and what Japan plans to do to revitalize its role on the world stage.
His speech in front of the Joint Meeting of Congress on April 29 is critical in this regard. On the floor of Congress, Abe will have a historic opportunity to reflect on the past, celebrate the essential role the Japan-U.S. relationship has played in Japan’s postwar economic recovery and reemergence as a peace-loving nation, and share his vision for how the Japan-U.S relationship can be transformed to remain the cornerstone of the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond for many years to come.
And the United States is ready to hear Abe out. A recent poll released by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit organization whose opinion polls are known to be credible, shows that an overwhelming majority of the U.S. public trusts Japan. This poll also shows that a majority of Americans, 61 percent, have moved beyond Japan’s wartime wrongdoing, either thinking that Japan has already apologized sufficiently, or that an apology is no longer necessary. With the majority considering the Japan-U.S. relationship more important in the face of rising China, Americans are ready to know more about Abe’s ideas for the future.
The challenge for Abe is his audience. Even though the audience for his speech in Congress is primarily American, it will have a global audience as well. If robust engagement by some activists both inside and outside of the United States against inviting Abe to speak in front of the Congress is any guide, his speech will be scrutinized by those who are determined to label Abe as a revisionist and will use anything they can use to prove it.
Abe has no need to try to go out of his way to convince these critics in this speech. Rather, he should focus on articulating in front of his American audience that he is personally committed to ensuring that Japan will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Abe should also elaborate on Japan’s efforts to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to upholding universal values and norms that were established to present. More importantly, Abe must articulate his vision of how Japan will leverage the Japan-U.S. relationship in its effort to undertake various policy initiatives to pursue international peace, security and prosperity. By doing so, Abe may be able to help Washington help Tokyo overcome the so-called “Japan’s history issue” with its neighbors.
The U.S. Congress’s invitation to Abe to appear in front of the Joint Meeting is a profound gesture of reconciliation offered by the United States — something that was not possible even for former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who enjoyed a very close personal relationship with former U.S. President George W. Bush. Abe should reciprocate this gesture in his speech.
This piece originally appeared in The Japan News.
Photo credit: CSIS: Center for Strategic & International Studies via flickr