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Japan’s Long Wait for US Congress Invitation
[2015.04.14] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

When Prime Minister Abe Shinzō addresses a joint session of the US Congress on April 29, 2015, he will become the first Japanese leader ever to do so. Since 1874, there have been over 100 addresses to the full Congress by foreign leaders, so why has it taken so long for Japan to win its turn?

On April 29, 2015, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō will become the first Japanese leader ever to address a joint session of the US Congress. And it has been 54 years since the last address to either house by a Japanese prime minister, when Ikeda Hayato spoke to the House of Representatives in June 1961. Given that Japan is generally considered to be the United States’ most important partner in Asia, it has been an extremely long time since a Japanese leader stepped onto the podium on Capitol Hill.

Yoshida Shigeru was the first Japanese prime minister to address the US Senate in 1954. He was followed by Kishi Nobusuke, Abe’s grandfather, who spoke at a Senate reception on June 20, 1957, and then Ikeda gave an address at a House of Representatives reception on June 22, 1961. Prime Minister Abe will give the fourth address, the first in front of both houses, 70 years after the end of World War II. John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, stated that “we are proud to host this historic event.”

Cold War Climate Fostered Early Invitations

To date, there have been 116 addresses to joint sessions of the US Congress by foreign leaders since the first by King Kalākaua of Hawaii in 1874. These have included five by German and six by Italian leaders since the hostilities of World War II and six by presidents of South Korea. To answer the question why it has taken so long for a Japanese prime minister to win an opportunity, it is necessary to consider Japan’s domestic politics, the bilateral relationship with the United States, and diplomatic relations in East Asia.

In the Cold War climate of the postwar era, Washington-Tokyo relations swiftly recovered, leading to the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Japan-US Security Treaty in 1951 and a revised security treaty in 1960. The invitations made to Prime Ministers Yoshida, Kishi, and Ikeda were products of the heightened tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, which aimed to strengthen its ties with a key ally. As if to highlight this, Ikeda’s speech came exactly one year after ratification of the revised treaty.

However, Japan’s economic advances in the 1970s and 80s created clear friction between the partners, shifting the idea of prime ministerial addresses off the agenda. Then in the 1990s, after the close of the Cold War, domestic politics played its part as the decades-long dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party came to an end. Amid political instability, prime ministers came and went so quickly that there seems to have been no thought of extending an invitation.

The association with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic joint session address on December 8, 1941, may also have been a factor. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt delivered his famous “Infamy Speech” to Congress, which immediately passed a formal declaration of war against Japan. Given this historical background, both Japan and the United States may have hesitated to suggest a joint session.

Yasukuni Shrine Visits Undermine Koizumi Chances

Historical issues related to World War II were certainly an obstacle for Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō, who led the country from 2001 until 2006 and made an official visit to the United States in June 2006. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Koizumi was quick to offer cooperation and support to the United States, and the bilateral relationship entered a golden era, prompting the Japanese government to explore the possibility of a Congress address.

However, Prime Minister Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese class A war criminals are enshrined, a total of six times during his premiership. At the time of his June 2006 visit to the United States, the last of these was planned for August 15 of the same year, the anniversary of the 1945 surrender of the Empire of Japan.

A movement arose in Congress to set the precondition that if Koizumi was to address both houses, he should not subsequently attend Yasukuni Shrine. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert stating that it would be “an affront” to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor if Koizumi went to Yasukuni after addressing Congress. In the end, Koizumi did not make an address and visited Elvis Presley’s former home in Graceland instead.

In December 2013 Prime Minister Abe made his own sudden visit to Yasukuni Shrine, sparking angry reactions in Korea and China. Korean-American and other civic groups criticized his attitude to history, particularly regarding the “comfort women” issue, and led petition drives aimed at blocking his Congress address.

The eyes of the world will be on Abe when he finally speaks to Congress later this month. It will undoubtedly be a highly significant and historic speech for the US-Japan alliance and peace and stability in Asia.

2015 Events and Anniversaries

April 22–23 60th Asia-Africa Conference (Bandung Conference) Jakarta, Indonesia
April 28 Japan-US summit Washington, United States
April 29 Address by Prime Minister Abe to US Congress Washington, United States
May 9 Victory Day (commemorating 70th anniversary of victory over Germany) Moscow, Russia
June 22 50th anniversary of normalization of Japan–South Korea diplomatic relations Japan and South Korea
August 15 Statement by Prime Minister Abe on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II Japan
National Liberation Day of Korea (Gwangbokjeol) South Korea
September 3 Victory Day of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression China
Mid-September Speech by Prime Minister Abe at the United Nations General Assembly New York, United States
September 18 Anniversary of the Manchurian Incident (1931) China
December 13 Nanjing Incident Memorial Day China

(Originally written in Japanese by Harano Jōji of Nippon.com and published on April 7, 2015. Banner photo: President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan addresses the US Congress in March 2015. © Reuters/Aflo.)

  • [2015.04.14]
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