WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will address a joint meeting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on April 29, becoming the first Japanese leader to do so.
Abe will spend eight days on a state visit expected to focus on joint responses to growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia, including his moves to loosen the constraints of Japan’s pacifist, postwar constitution on the military.
In announcing the invitation to the Japanese leader, U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner said Abe’s speech would be an opportunity for Americans to hear from a close ally about ways to expand cooperation on economic and security priorities.
“That, of course, includes working together to open markets and encourage more economic growth through free trade,” Boehner said in a statement.
Trade is an important component of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic and security “pivot” to Asia. Progress toward a12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has been touted as a key hope for Abe’s visit to the United States, starting April 28. Congress, however, has been slow to finalize legislation to speed such agreements.
There had been some resistance to offering Abe the honor of addressing both houses.
An organization for former U.S. prisoners of the Japanese and a Korean-American forum said last week he should only be allowed to make the address if he acknowledged Japan’s World War Two past.
Abe cuts a controversial figure in parts of Asia given what critics see as his attempts to water down past statements about the behavior of Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.
Washington has stressed the need for Japan and its neighbors, including another U.S. treaty ally, South Korea, to bury historical animosities.
Asked about the speech, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in Tokyo on Friday that it would “have great significance in that it will demonstrate the strong U.S.-Japan alliance to the world.”
“This will be an a splendid opportunity to send a message to the world, that the United States and Japan reconciled after the war and as strong allies...have contributed to the peace and prosperity of international society...,” Suga said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said a Feb. 12 speech to Japan’s parliament by Abe delivered “a very positive message about history issues” and added: “We continue to emphasize the importance of approaching historical legacy issues in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation.”
Speaking to Congress will be a personal milestone for Abe, given that his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, addressed the house as Japanese prime minister in 1957, and the most recent address to that chamber by a Japanese leader was in 1961 by then-Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.
Although addresses to both houses by foreign leaders are fairly rare, Abe’s will be the third this year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to both houses on March 3, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did so on March 25.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing; by Doina Chiacu, Bernard Orr, Andrew Hay and Michael Perry