On April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a historic speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In the weeks leading up to his visit, observers argued that his success would be measured by the extent to which he addressed and further apologized for Imperial Japan’s wartime deeds. His message about the U.S.–Japanese alliance or his vision of Japan’s regional role came in a distant second.
On all counts, Abe’s speech was a success. He adeptly discussed Imperial Japan’s war against the United States and the importance of reconciliation, and then explicitly laid out the role he sees the alliance playing in the world; he also reminded Congress of the shared values that form its foundation.
Prior to his visit, Abe was something of an unknown in Washington. People had heard of him, of course, but reports tended to focus on him as an unapologetic, nationalistic leader tearing up Japan’s constitution and paving the path for militarism’s return. For this reason, the personal anecdotes he peppered throughout his speech were important. He talked of liking Carole King in his student years, and his first experience of America during a homestay in California. Later, he said, when lived in New York as a steelmaker, he became a strong believer in America’s culture of meritocracy. Perhaps most important, Abe revealed his lighter side through a number of jokes. For a leader who has often been characterized in an extremely negative light, his anecdotes humanized him and made him more likeable.
Abe also spoke of broad, shared values, reminding Congress why the United States and Japan remain strong allies. He did this by skillfully weaving together historical turning points for Japan and the United States. These include nineteenth-century Japanese modernizers finding the foundation for democracy in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Japan siding with like-minded democracies and winning the Cold War. He reinforced these linkages by interspersing throughout his speech mentions
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