Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in front of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 29, 2015.
Gary Cameron / Reuters

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 of the allies’ shared values of freedom, rule of law, prosperity, and peace. Taken together, Abe both reminded Congress of the alliance’s strong foundation and of the challenge China poses to these values. Although China was not named, the reference was apparent in Abe’s call for the United States and Japan to take the lead in building a market that is “free from the arbitrary intentions of any nation” and underscoring his three principles regarding Asian waters (states shall make claims based on international law; states shall not use force or coercion to drive their claims; and states shall settle disputes by peaceful means).

Abe went on to outline a number of domestic reforms, which he connected directly to current alliance efforts. In the economic sphere, he discussed reforms of the agricultural sector, strengthening corporate governance and regulations, and empowering women—all as rationale for asking Congress to conclude TPP negotiations so that the alliance can spread its shared values around the world. In the security sphere, he briefly touched on Japan’s deepening strategic relations with a number of states and his ongoing legislative efforts to expand the functional responsibilities of Japan’s military beyond its own defense. In turn, he connected this to the alliance’s revised defense guidelines and Japan’s strong support for the U.S. rebalance to the Asia–Pacific region. These comments reminded listeners of the direct linkages between Abe’s domestic agenda, the United States’ security and economy, and current alliance efforts.

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise was his handling of wartime history. He reiterated postwar Japan’s feelings of deep remorse for the suffering of Asian peoples and upheld the views expressed by his predecessors. He departed from previous premiers, however, by personalizing his statements by talking about his experience at the World War II memorial and reflecting on the 400,000 young Americans who were sacrificed in defending freedom. Importantly, he offered a new expression of remorse, “I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.” He then introduced an American veteran who led a company onto Iwo Jima sitting next to the grandson of a Japanese general who commanded the Iwo Jima garrison. The two reached out and held each others’ hands, proof that reconciliation is possible but, as Abe pointed out, only when Japan’s former enemies make efforts at reconciliation as well. Abe’s critics will not be pleased by his handling of history (particularly because he never used the word “apology”), but for the American audience, for which the speech was intended, Abe’s treatment of history was effective because it was eloquent, explicit, and symbolic.

Notably, Abe provided a full view of Japan’s postwar history rather than a truncated one that focused on pre-1945 actions. Starting with Japan being reduced to ashes in the war, he spoke of the hardships in Japan’s postwar reconstruction. He narrated Japan’s economic rise and its efforts to assist regional development. He walked through a detailed explanation of the post-Cold War evolution of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ missions as a prelude to understanding his vision for both Japan and the alliance taking on more responsibility for global peace and stability. In a brief period of time, Abe was able to draw linkages between Japan’s postwar experience and the importance of actively contributing to peace and prosperity.  

Given the recent history of Japan’s annual rotation of prime ministers, it was never a surprise that a premier has not been recently invited to address Congress in any capacity. Yet, because of the hype surrounding Abe’s visit, the bar was set quite high for his speech. In the end, through an adept handling of history and linking together the alliance’s shared values, common purpose, and vision for the future, Abe rose to the challenge.

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  • JEFFREY W. HORNUNG is Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) and an Adjunct Fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The views expressed here are the author's own.
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