Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has become the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Abe highlighted the strong bonds between Japan and the United States and expressed support for a proposed Pacific trade agreement. But some Asian-American lawmakers expressed bitter disappointment that Abe failed to apologize to women his country sexually enslaved during World War II.
Abe made history in the U.S. Congress Wednesday. He also turned back to the history of 70 years ago, noting he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington before his speech.
"What's done cannot be undone," Abe said, adding that on behalf of Japan, "I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences" for those deaths.
But Abe stopped short of apologizing for the Japanese Imperial Army’s sexual enslavement during the war of some 200,000 Asian girls and women, referred to as “comfort women.” He said he upholds the regrets expressed by previous Japanese prime ministers.
And he vowed to protect women, and to make some changes:
“We are changing some of our old habits to empower women so they can get more actively engaged in all walks of life,” he said.
Yet some Democratic lawmakers were disappointed he did not directly apologize to the abused women. Representative Mike Honda told VOA Abe missed the opportunity to show true leadership.
“He did talk about Japan and his effort to make sure that some of the old habits - SOME of the old habits - of Japan will be changed. But he skirted around the issue of the violence against women as it relates to the history of the Japanese military - the systematic kidnapping of girls and women into sexual slavery,” said Honda. "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' during World War II."
A survivor of the wartime atrocities, Yong Soo Lee, was Honda’s guest in the House chamber. She also took part in a protest against Abe.
“I came here to see Abe. Abe denied [Japan] took these women, but I’m the living witness of comfort woman. I was forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers, I want to show myself to him,” said Lee.
Looking to the future, Prime Minister Abe called on the United States and Japan to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact. He also thanked America for being a friend to Japan and others during hard times.
"The finest asset the U.S. had to give the world was hope, is hope, and must always be hope,” he said.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner and others praised Abe’s speech, saying it was about a future based on shared values and common aspirations.
China, South Korea Slam Abe's 'Incomplete' Apology
The governments of South Korea and China criticized Abe for failing to issue what they view as an adequate apology for Japan's past atrocities in their countries.
Abe expressed "deep repentance" over Japan's imperialist past and said Tokyo must not ignore the suffering caused by its wartime behavior.
"Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that," said Abe in the closely watched address.
But he failed to repeat the language used in official apologies by previous Japanese prime ministers, instead saying he will "uphold the views" of his predecessors.
The speech did not satisfy many Koreans and Chinese, who accuse the conservative Japanese leader of minimizing Tokyo's role in past misdeeds, including Japan's sexual slavery of Asian women during World War II.
It was "very regrettable" there were no "sincere apologies" in the speech, according to a statement by South Korea's foreign ministry, adding Abe missed an opportunity for "true reconciliation."
China's foreign ministry said Thursday it "continuously urges the Japanese government and leaders to take a responsible attitude toward history."
Cindy Saine contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.