Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday expressed "deep repentance" over Japan's role in World War II, even as he declared Tokyo's emergence as a global security player in the face of China's rising power in Asia.
Prime Minister Abe made his comments as he became the first Japanese prime minister to receive the rare honor of addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
Speaking in English, Abe said Tokyo must not ignore the suffering of Asian peoples from its wartime behavior — but stopped short of issuing his own apology, instead upholding statements by his predecessors.
Thanking those in attendance, Abe emphasized the strength of U.S.-Japanese ties and offered condolences for the Americans who died in World War II as he made the historic Capitol Hill address.
"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.
Prior to his speech before Congress, Abe visited the World War II memorial and reflected on the estimated 400,000 American war dead.
His speech came as both countries mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
Many Chinese and South Koreans say Abe is not sufficiently apologetic toward his country's past misdeeds, including Japan's slavery of Asian women during World War II.
The speech came one day after U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the Japanese prime minister to the White House in a pomp-filled ceremony. In his greeting, Obama said, "The United States has renewed our leadership in the Asia Pacific. Prime Minister Abe is leading Japan to a new role on the world stage. The foundation of both efforts is a strong U.S.-Japan alliance."
Abe, who is on a weeklong U.S. visit, described the U.S.-Japanese alliance as "more robust than ever" and said Tokyo would be at "the forefront with the U.S." in confronting global challenges.
The two leaders also pledged to complete a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade agreement, the trans-Pacific trade pact, even as the U.S. leader acknowledged opposition to the deal in both countries. It is a cornerstone of Obama's second term agenda.
Abe told lawmakers the deal should be completed "for the sake of our children and our children's children."
The Pacific trade deal, and a companion one with European nations, has drawn opposition in the U.S. from labor unions and Democratic lawmakers who normally are allies with Obama, a Democrat. They say it will cost many U.S. workers their jobs as corporations move their operations overseas in pursuit of cheaper labor costs. Meanwhile, business-oriented Republicans in Congress who often oppose Obama on a wide range of issues generally support the pending trade agreements.
"I know the politics around trade can be hard in both our countries," Obama said at a Tuesday news conference following private talks. "But I know that Prime Minister Abe, like me, is deeply committed to getting this done and I'm confident we will."
Obama said the trade bill would boost U.S. exporters and the country's labor market. "I'm confident we will end up getting the votes in Congress," he said.
Both leaders on Tuesday voiced concern about China's activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built an air strip and other structures on coral reefs.
Obama said the two countries "are united in our commitment to freedom of navigation, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion."
Meanwhile, Obama and Abe said they are not opposed to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but Obama said that, like other world funding organizations, its programs and lending practices must be transparent and aligned with good governance.
The U.S. and Japan also agreed to tighten their defense alliance, a move widely seen as a response to China's growing power.
The revised guidelines help Japan play a larger part in international conflicts, allowing Tokyo to come to the defense of a third country and strengthening its role in missile defense, mine sweeping and ship inspections.
It is the first time in 18 years the U.S. and Japan have revised their defense guidelines. The move follows Japan's decision last year to reinterpret its pacifist constitution to allow for collective self-defense.
Prime Minister Abe was the guest of honor Tuesday night at a glamorous state dinner in the White House East Room, which was decorated with pink lighting and cherry blossoms. Obama welcomed Abe with a haiku, a traditional Japanese poem. He used sake, a rice-based alcoholic beverage, instead of the traditional champagne for a toast.
Portions of this report are from AP, Reuters.