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Abe Speech Checks All but 1 Conspicuous Box

The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, Inc. rallies Wednesday outside the Capitol during Abe's address to Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, Inc. rallies Wednesday outside the Capitol during Abe's address to Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It was a perfectly acceptable address: reverent, touching, even a little funny. But Shinzō Abe’s speech to Congress Wednesday will be remembered less for any applause line and more for what was left unsaid.  

The Japanese prime minister avoided the most contentious issue surrounding the speech, namely: demands for an overt apology for Japan’s sexual enslavement of “comfort women” during World War II.  

Abe acknowledged the controversy with only a passing reference.  

“In our age, we must realize the kind of world where, finally, women are free from human rights abuses,” Abe said. The line was one of the most enthusiastically applauded parts of the whole speech, but one member wasn’t clapping.  

Rep. Michael M. Honda, who brought a former comfort woman to the speech as his guest, chose a prominent seat for the address — right along the center aisle — and made a statement throughout Abe’s remarks by conspicuously not applauding. The California Democrat followed that dig with a more direct statement.  

“It is shocking and shameful that Prime Minister Abe continues to evade his government’s responsibility for the systematic atrocity that was perpetrated [by] the Japanese Imperial Army against the so-called ‘comfort women,'” said Honda, who is of Japanese descent.  

“Without acknowledging the sins of the past,” Honda wrote in a statement, “history will repeat itself.”  

Abe’s labored English made it difficult for him to elicit much more than lukewarm applause from the members in attendance, with the relatively subdued reception a marked contrast to Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 address to  Congress. The Israeli prime minister’s speech was sharply criticized — and even boycotted — by Democrats who felt Netanyahu had stepped over the line with criticism of the White House.  

While Netanyahu included a few pointed jabs at President Barack Obama, Abe highlighted his partnership with the White House in championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential trade deal between the United States, Japan and 10 other countries.  

“Involving countries in the Asia-Pacific whose backgrounds vary, the U.S. and Japan must take the lead,” Abe said of the trade deal. “We must take the lead to build a market that is fair, dynamic, sustainable and is also free from the arbitrary intentions of any nation.”  

He said Pacific countries had an obligation to not overlook sweat shops or burdens on the environment, nor could they allow free riders on intellectual property.  

Instead, Abe continued, a trade deal would help spread shared values around the world. The benefits, he said, would go beyond economic. “It is also about our security. Long-term, its strategic value is awesome.”  

In making the defense case, Abe said the United States and Japan both fostered prosperity. “And prosperity is nothing less than the seedbed for peace,” he said.  

But perhaps the most telling line of the whole address was at the conclusion of his section on trade. In his final thought about the possible deal, in a simple line clearly designed for applause, Abe said, “Let us bring the TPP to a successful conclusion through our joint leadership.”  

The sentiment drew nearly universal applause from Republicans, hardly any clapping from Democrats, and not one standing ovation from even a single member.  

One memorable moment of the speech occurred when Abe recognized the two countries’ less-peaceful past. Abe sat Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden, a U.S. veteran of Iwo Jima, beside a former member of his cabinet, a grandson of one of the commanders of a Japanese garrison at Iwo Jima. The two men stood together at one point, shaking hands.  

Even Honda clapped.  

Abe noted he had just visited the World War II Memorial a mile-and-a-half away. “With deep repentance in my heart, I stood there in silent prayers for some time,” he said.  

“History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone,” Abe said.  

Overall, Abe tried to keep the speech light. He had plenty of jokes — “I am here with no ability, nor the intention, to filibuster” — and members were more than willing to oblige Abe’s laugh lines with polite chuckles.  

As the prime minister worked through the speech in the disrupted cadence of someone whose first language is not English, lawmakers mostly followed along on paper versions of the speech.  

Abe recounted his experiences in the United States, first as a student at University of Southern California and later as a steelmaker in New York. He spoke kindly about an American widow who let him live in her house, mentioning that the woman used to favorably compare her late husband to Gary Cooper.  

When Abe acknowledged his wife was in attendance, he said he didn’t dare ask what she’d say about him.  

Abe also owned up to being a big Carole King fan in high school, which was news Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi greeted enthusiastically. Abe said the King song “You’ve Got a Friend” — better known as a James Taylor song — “flew out and shook my heart.”  

When the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, Abe said the darkest night fell upon his nation.  

“But it was then we saw the U.S. armed forces rushing to Japan to the rescue,” he said.  

“Yes,” Abe continued, “we’ve got a friend in you.”  


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