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Shinzo Abe: Will he or won’t he apologize during Washington visit?

Throughout this coming week, a Japanese visitor named Shinzo Abe will be touring the United States with stops in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as meetings in Washington with President Barack Obama and a speech to Congress.

Although a majority of Americans – 73 percent, according to a recent Pew Center poll – have never heard of Japanese Prime Minister Abe, his trip will be watched closely, indeed almost word for word and comma for comma, by politicians, diplomats and analysts in Washington and across Asia. The Washington agenda will be intense, with Abe and President Obama possibly reaching a long-awaited breakthrough on a Pacific trade agreement and revising defense arrangements between the two major Pacific allies.

And coming on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Abe trip is also heavy with symbolism. For starters, the prime minister will speak at the same podium in the House of Representatives chamber from which Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to declare war on the Empire of Japan.

What Abe leaves unsaid in his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, the first ever by a Japanese prime minister, will be read as carefully as what he does say. He is expected in the Congress speech and in other public remarks to focus on Japan’s post-World War II peaceful history, the U.S.-Japan alliance and U.S. military and economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

But from China to South Korea, there are expectations on what Abe will or should say about Japanese conduct during the war. In a speech in Indonesia on Wednesday, Abe expressed “deep remorse” about the war. Political and opinion leaders in Beijing and Seoul, as well as increasingly influential Korean-American groups in the U.S. want a full-fledged apology, especially for forcing as many as 200,000 Korean and other Asian women, known as comfort women, into service as prostitutes for the Japanese military.

That will be the prime minister’s principal dilemma during his Washington visit. As Sheila Smith, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed, “There will be a global audience for this speech even though first and foremost he is talking to Congress and the United States.”

A group of 25 House members, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., has asked Abe to stick to forthright apologies of previous Japanese leaders. But Abe is more likely to give a variation of the speech he delivered to the Australian parliament last year, expressing sorrow and condolences over the bloodiest battles fought between Japanese and Australian soldiers but without using the word apology.

A fuller statement, being drafted by a committee of experts and historians in Tokyo, is more likely to come on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of World War II. The Abe administration has said it is sticking to previous government statements.

But around Asia every new statement by the prime minister is parsed for hints of back-tracking and softer language from a politician, viewed as more conservative and nationalistic than many of his predecessors and whose grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was accused but never formally charged with war crimes.

The key Japanese government statement, with a “heartfelt apology” was issued by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in 1995. It included references to “mistaken national policy”, “colonial rule”, “aggression” and “irrefutable facts of history”.

According to the poll from the Pew Research Center of l,000 Americans and 1,000 Japanese, only 37 percent of the U.S. respondents think Japan has apologized enough for its war actions. Even so, there is a high degree of trust between the two nations. Some 68 percent of the Americans and 75 percent of the Japanese think they can trust the other country a great deal or fair amount.

Not surprisingly, the biggest disparity is over the question of whether the U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of the war were justified. The American responses were 56 percent yes and 34 percent no while the Japanese were 14 percent justified and 79 percent not. But as Pew’s research director Bruce Stokes pointed out, the American number believing the attacks were warranted drops with each generation from 70 percent of Americans 65 or older, to only 47 percent among U.S. millennials.

Other numbers in the poll point to some critical issues in the discussions between Abe and his entourage and President Obama and his Cabinet secretaries. The prime minister is seeking a new interpretation of Japan’s anti-war constitution, imposed during the American post-war occupation, that would allow Japanese forces to play a bigger role in collective defense and that will be at the heart of the new defense guidelines which will be completed in meetings of U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers during the visit. Only 47 percent of Americans think Japan should play a more active military role. Among the Japanese that number tanks to 23 percent, although Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic coalition seems to have the votes in the Japanese Diet to approve a version of the new interpretation.

According to former Pentagon official and Carnegie Endowment analyst James Schoff, North Korea’s military modernization including missiles for its nuclear bombs and cyber and China’s growing strength are pushing Abe to give the military a bigger role and to enable it to cooperate more with U.S. forces in the region.

Just as, if not more critical in Asia-Pacific geo-politics, will be the ability of the Abe and Obama teams to reach or near a bilateral accord that will pave the way to completion of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade arrangement. Intense negotiations among senior trade officials have brought the two countries close but not yet in total agreement on issues that have bedeviled trade relations for decades: the readiness of Japan to open its agriculture and auto markets.

In a briefing for U.S. reporters, Japan’s Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae said he did not know if the two leaders would actually make the final deal but perhaps would get close enough that final details could be wrapped up soon after. Those talks will be going on as President Obama and his officials are engaged in tense negotiations with Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority legislation that would allow an up or down congressional vote on the trade deal without amendments.

Abe will be the first of prominent North Asian visitors to Washington, followed later this summer by South Korea’s President Park Guen-hye and in September by China’s leader Xi Jinping, demonstrating that triangular and quadrangular diplomacy is going full tilt in the region.

Recently, senior diplomats from Tokyo and Seoul began talks to reduce the tensions in their often up-and-down relationship, exacerbated during Abe’s tenure by his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and some Japanese commentary interpreted in Seoul as downplaying the comfort women issue. Their two leaders have met only once, a brief and delicate dance organized by President Obama at an international summit last year.

There’s also been a slight warming between Japan and China capped on Wednesday in a 29-minute meeting and seemingly friendly photo op between Xi and Abe at the Bandung, Indonesia, summit of African and Asian leaders. Several analysts, including Chis Nelson, editor of the Nelson Report, said Xi is trying to present a more benign face to Asia after two years of tensions over territorial issues. And as Nelson and Sheila Smith observed, as China’s economy slows, a $345 billion trade and investment relationship has been put a risk in the aftermath of anti-Japanese demonstrations that flared out of control two years ago and are scaring Japanese investment out of China.

Despite some U.S. media coverage, Abe may leave the United States next week still with three-quarters of the U.S. population barely aware of who he is or even that he was here. But for the Japanese prime minister as well as his American hosts, his trip and his words said and unsaid could help determine whether waters in the Pacific grow more roiled or more calm.

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