Japan Prime Minister Abe in historic speech vows to uphold past war statements

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a landmark speech to the U.S. Congress on April 29, said he will stick to statements by his predecessors expressing “deep remorse” over Japan’s wartime behavior.

Abe admitted that Japan’s actions “brought suffering to the peoples” in other Asian countries before and during World War II, but his speech, delivered in English, did not contain a straightforward apology for Japanese wartime aggression.

In the speech at the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Japanese leader also pitched his policy of empowering women while soliciting U.S. lawmakers’ cooperation so that Japan, the United States and 10 other countries can move forward in concluding a U.S.-led Pacific free trade initiative.

Abe became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and the spotlight fell on his choice of words regarding wartime history amid speculation his phrasing will foreshadow the statement he issues this summer on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the war.

“I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II,” Abe told the audience, which included an American held by Japan as a prisoner of war.

“History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone,” said Abe, who visited the World War II Memorial in downtown Washington before he came to Congress. “With deep repentance in my heart, I stood there in silent prayers for some time,” he said.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden commended Abe for stating Japan’s responsibility for the war, describing the speech as “very graceful” and “much appreciated.”

Abe said Japanese must not avert their eyes from the suffering Japan brought to people in other Asian countries. “I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.”

Abe was thought to be referring to a 1995 statement in which then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed feelings of “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” for the damage and suffering Japan caused, especially to people in other Asian countries, and to a similar statement by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi 10 years later which used the same language.

The 60-year-old Abe, who some in the United States suggest has revisionist tendencies, has said his government has inherited the same basic views expressed in those statements, but that he may not use the exact same words or phrases in a war statement of his own.

“Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most,” Abe said, addressing a crowd that included an 86-year-old South Korean woman who says
she was forced to work at Japanese military brothels in Taiwan.

“In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuse,” he said, drawing a big round of applause from the floor.

Abe did not mention the issue of so-called “comfort women” in the speech but said the previous day that he will stand by a 1993 apology over the issue by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

During the speech, Abe touted recent progress made by Tokyo and Washington in bilateral trade negotiations over thorny issues under the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative.

“Let us bring the TPP to a successful conclusion through our joint leadership,” Abe said. “As for U.S.-Japan negotiations, the goal is near.”

A bill now before Congress would grant to U.S. President Barack Obama so-called Trade Promotion Authority, intended to speed up negotiations toward concluding and signing a TPP agreement covering 40 percent of the global economy.

In an apparent reference to China’s maritime activities in the South China Sea, the Japanese prime minister underscored the need for countries to assert claims based on international law, not through force or coercion, and to settle disputes through peaceful means.

Japan and the United States must strengthen their security alliance to “make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean seas of peace and freedom, where all follow the rule of law,” Abe said.

As a way of enhancing defense collaboration with the U.S. military, lawmakers from Abe’s ruling bloc are deliberating draft bills that would expand overseas activities of the Self-Defense Forces under the new legal interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. “We will achieve this by this coming summer,” Abe said of the reform procedure.

But the remark by the head of the government may stir controversy in Japan as it could be seen as interfering with the independence of legislature. Lawmakers have yet to submit any bills to parliament.

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