In his announcement inviting Shinzo Abe as the first Japanese Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of the Congress, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio) termed it a “historic event.” What could have been truly historic, however, has become instead a missed opportunity. Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported in January that Abe was considering a visit to Pearl Harbor en route to Washington as a first for a Japanese prime minister. Such a sincere gesture would have been a major step forward in seeking reconciliation over still-festering Pacific War wounds. Instead, in another nod to his right-wing supporters, the Prime Minister decided to bypass the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial on his way to the podium in Congress where President Franklin Roosevelt gave his “date which will live in infamy” speech.
In the meantime, the historic deniers in Japan are reportedly lobbying Abe to choose Hiroshima as the site for next year’s G7 summit, which Japan will host. This would make President Obama the first U.S. president to visit the site of the atomic bombing of Aug. 6, 1945. If Obama can be persuaded to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Memorial after Abe has snubbed Pearl Harbor, then the mission will be accomplished: enshrining Japan as the victim in World War II while painting the U.S. as the true aggressor.
The content of what Prime Minister Abe says – and does not say – in his Congressional address will be just as important as the venue itself. All ears in East Asia will be listening with great interest even if Americans are consumed by their usual historic amnesia. The Prime Minister has indicated that he will express “deep remorse” for the World War II, but not “retrospection” as he seeks to be “forward-looking.”
He may model his remarks on what was considered a successful address to the Australian Parliament last year, where he said: “How many young Australians, with bright futures to come, lost their lives?...May I most humbly speak for Japan and on behalf of the Japanese people here in sending my most sincere condolences towards the many souls who lost their lives.”
Condolences are offered at funerals over deaths for which one bears no responsibility. Abe’s remarks in Australia were similar, in many ways, to the heart-felt condolences sent by Japan’s allies after the devastating Fukushima tsunami of 2011. The difference, of course, is that the Bataan Death March was not a natural disaster like Fukushima. It was a deliberate act of aggression.
“Aggression” was the very word uttered by former Japanese Prime Minister Murayama in his 1995 statement marking the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Pacific War but one which Abe is reluctant to use. On March 10 of this year, the 91-year-old Murayama cautioned Abe that he “risks further alienating Asian neighbors” if he does not stick to the 1995 statement in his 70th anniversary remarks. Put simply, a war of aggression requires a different response than the equivalent of “I feel your pain.” It requires somber reflection and a sincere taking of responsibility, as German Chancellor Merkel urged in her recent Tokyo visit.
On the equally heart-wrenching issue of comfort women or, as former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE said, “enforced sex slaves,” Abe should be aware that he will be speaking in the very Chamber that unanimously adopted H. R. 121 in 2007. That resolution called on the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ’comfort women.’ ”
The prime minister’s recent Washington Post interview where he spoke of comfort women as victims of “human trafficking” is incorrectly pointed to by some as a breakthrough. In fact, the use of these words belies the fact that victims are trafficked by someone. Nigerian school girls were trafficked by Boko Haram, Yazidi women by ISIL and comfort women by Imperial Japanese forces. Abe needs to unequivocally acknowledge and apologize for the fact that the Japanese military forced hundreds of thousands of young women from Korea and other occupied territories into sexual slavery to service Japanese troops. He cannot rewrite history.
Finally, April 29 is a particularly poor date for Abe’s address: It is wartime Emperor Hirohito’s birthday. While war hero Louis Zamperini is no longer with us, his “Unbroken” POW brothers would appreciate some recognition of the suffering they endured in being forced to bow to Hirohito’s portrait.
Mr. Abe, not only America, but the world, is waiting to hear your words. And as the Catholic nuns used to teach, the sins of omission are often the most serious.
Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He was a senior staff adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and served two tours as a Foreign Service Officer in South Korea, including as U.S. Consul in Busan.