To stand at the podium and address the United States Congress is a significant moment for any speaker; but as Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe began his speech before a special joint session on April 29, it was a moment of personal and national history. Mr. Abe was the first Japanese head of state to address a joint session of Congress, standing in the same spot as his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who in 1957 spoke to both the House and Senate in separate gatherings.
The media coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit has highlighted this as a historic first, but as Mr. Abe reminded us by recalling his grandfather’s appearance at the US Capitol, he is not the only Japanese leader to speak before the legislature. Prior to World War II, foreign dignitaries did not address meetings of the combined congress. Instead they were invited by each chamber separately to either House or Senate “Receptions.” Although high-ranking Japanese officials did speak at such receptions prior to the mid-20th century, it was not until after the US formally reinstated diplomatic relations with Japan in 1952 that Japanese Prime Ministers were invited to speak to congress as part of their state visits to Washington. In the 1950s and 60s, three such Japanese leaders addressed meetings of chambers of Congress: Shigeru Yoshida (Senate – 1954), Nobusuke Kishi (House and Senate – 1957), and Hayato Ikeda (House - 1961).
Over 54 years have passed between Mr. Abe and Mr. Ikeda’s speeches, despite Japan holding a special place as a US treaty ally and global partner in the intervening decades. There are likely several reasons for this diplomatic anomaly that revolve around domestic politics and historical factors in both countries. The three Prime Ministers from Japan that did speak to congress did so during the height of Cold War tensions and as both countries moved toward what would become the modern US-Japan security alliance. In the following decades, trade and other economic disputes with Japan in the 70s and 80s made the Japanese leadership unpopular in many American constituencies, and political instability in the Japanese diet in the 90s and mid 2000s resulted in a large number of Prime Ministers in rapid succession.
Historical issues have also played a role. Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi enjoyed five years in power in the early 2000s and a close friendship with then-President George W. Bush, the US congress withheld an invitation to him in protest of his official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, known for including Class A war criminals from WWII among the fallen Japanese soldiers memorialized there. Finally, for decades the diplomatic missions on both sides chose not to pursue an address joint session of congress out of consideration for the memories of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech.” That historic address was before a joint session following the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and resulted in Congress’ immediate vote to declare war on Japan in 1941.
Under this backdrop, Abe’s address carried the overarching message of a modern US-Japan partnership of shared values and peace. He began, after recalling his early encounters with America as a foreign student in California, by touching on history directly. Sharing reflections on his emotional visit to the WWII memorial on the National Mall and remorse for the past, he stated: “My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.”
He then turned his remarks to how the US and Japan must continue to be global partners in economic development and regional security; explained to congress the efforts his government is making to reenergize and expand its role in these areas. He again returned to the themes of peace and shared values by characterizing prosperity as “nothing less than the seedbed for peace” and describing the US-Japan alliance as one that “cherishes… the rule of law, respect for human rights and freedom.”
Standing before legislature in the same way as both President Roosevelt and his grandfather before him, Prime Minister Abe concluded by stating:
“The finest asset the U.S. has to give to the world was hope, is hope, will be, and must always be hope. Let us call the U.S.-Japan alliance, an alliance of hope. Let the two of us, America and Japan, join our hands together and do our best to make the world a better, a much better, place to live.”
Grace Ruch Clegg is the Projects & Outreach coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington, and has been a contributor to Japan Matters for America since its beginning in 2010.