WASHINGTON – Washington honours America’s closest friends by inviting their leaders to address a joint meeting of Congress, but Wednesday’s speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the first by a Japanese leader. That’s striking considering the tight U.S.-Japan alliance in the 70 years since World War II ended. British, South Korean and German leaders have been invited multiple times. So have two Liberian presidents and a Latvian one – more than 100 invitations overall since the war. So why not Japan? The answers have to do with underlying friction that has been a part of U.S.-Japanese relations and, more recently, frequent changes of Japanese leaders.
IN HIS GRANDFATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
The modern practice of a foreign leader speaking to both houses of Congress began with Winston Churchill in December 1941, just after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After the war, Japanese leaders were not entirely shunned. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in 1957 addressed Congress, but it was to just one chamber, which was still common for visiting foreign leaders until the 1960s. Kishi had been detained as a war crimes suspect but was never indicted for his role as a wartime Cabinet minister. However, he became a strong advocate of closer relations with Washington, like his grandson, pushing through a 1960 security treaty that shaped the alliance, committing the U.S. to assist Japan if it comes under attack. Kishi’s successor, Hayato Ikeda, made a very short address to the House in 1961. No Japanese premier has since.
IF NOT CONGRESS, THEN GRACELAND
Since 1951, Japanese prime ministers have made 37 working or official visits to the United States, according to a State Department tally. While defence and diplomatic relations have been very close, from the 1970s through to the 1990s there was trade friction and American anxiety that its economy could be eclipsed. Some lawmakers have also expressed concerns over Japan’s attitude to its wartime past. When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited in 2006, there was expectation he would be invited to address Congress, an honour given to other U.S. allies in the Iraq War. But Rep. Henry Hyde, chair of the House International Relations Committee, objected in a letter to the House speaker, saying Koizumi should forgo future visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo where war criminals are among those memorialized. Japan denied it ever requested that the prime minister to speak to Congress. Koizumi still made an impression in America — by impersonating Elvis Presley on a trip to Graceland.
Abe also has hawkish views, and a December 2013 visit to Yasukuni angered neighbouring China and South Korea, raising tensions and complicating U.S. diplomacy. But Abe is the first prime minister since Koizumi to stay in office more than 16 months, and he has invested considerable political capital to forge stronger ties with the U.S. Despite domestic opposition, he propelled Japan into negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, and plans to loosen the binds on the nation’s military under its pacifist constitution. New defence guidelines agreed Monday could enable Japan for the first time to come to the defence of U.S. forces. Some U.S. lawmakers still have been urging that Abe should address the war’s legacy during his high-profile visit. Another close U.S. ally, South Korea, wants Abe to apologize for the use of sex slaves by Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.