Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's address to Congress next week hasn't received quite the same hype as the Israeli prime minister's speech earlier this year. But for American veterans' advocates, who have closely watched the prime minister, the speech could be historic—if only Abe would use the platform the way they want him to.
Abe has come under criticism in recent years in the United States, China, and South Korea for insufficiently acknowledging—and even downplaying—Japan's aggressions during World War II. And when news broke last month in Japan that the prime minister had been invited to address a joint meeting of Congress, some groups in the United States sought to establish "conditions" for his appearance.
Jan Thompson, the president of an advocacy group for World War II prisoners of war, said Abe should acknowledge Imperial Japan's conduct with firmer, clearer statements than he has used in the past. The prime minister has expressed deep regret for Japan's actions but has not outright apologized. Thompson's father was a prisoner of war in the Pacific, and she said the prime minister's words have real consequence for aging veterans.
"Japan needs to be sensitive," Thompson said, especially as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. "And if they can show that sensitivity at the podium, they might not be as criticized."
It's not just the content of Abe's speech that's of concern to some in the United States—the date it's scheduled for, April 29, is controversial as well. An op-ed published in The Hill Tuesday calls it a "poor date," because it marks the birthday of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during World War II.
Thompson's organization—American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society—sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner and other members of Congress on Tuesday questioning the speech's scheduling.
"On that day, American POWs were forced to bow the lowest in Imperial Japan's prison camps," the letter reads. "There are many in Japan who believe that the War was just and who deny the record of Japan's many wartime atrocities. We fear the scheduling of Prime Minister Abe's speech offers comfort to deniers and insults America's Pacific War veterans."
Boehner's office did not respond to requests for comment.
When talking about his country's military history, Abe hasn't gone as far as previous prime ministers, who have offered their apologies for the war. Though Abe's administration has said it "upholds" past prime ministers' comments about Japan's actions in World War II, the prime minister has indicated that he won't echo their language in his own future statements—something his critics see as an attempt to gloss over Japan's history.
And the prime minister's actions over the last two days are likely to add to—not assuage—his critics' concerns. At a summit Wednesday in Indonesia, Abe said Japan feels "deep remorse" for its involvement in the war, but he didn't give a direct apology. And on Tuesday, the prime minister sent a gift to a Tokyo shrine dedicated to the country's fallen military men, including those who fought in World War II. The shrine is controversial to Japan's neighbors, who worry it glorifies the country's wartime past.
Thompson wants Japan to install monuments to America's war dead on the country's own soil. Last month, she testified about that request at a joint Senate and House Veterans Affairs hearing. Thompson also told members they should urge the Japanese government to fund more American veterans' trips to Japan and encourage Japanese companies who used POW slave labor to own up to their misdeeds.
Thompson said that although she "can't be his speechwriter" for next week's address, Abe "has a historic opportunity to try to set some records straight and start the healing process."