WASHINGTON — Declaring "history is harsh," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan offered solemn condolences Wednesday for the Americans who died in World War II as he became the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress.
"My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II," said Abe, prompting lawmakers of both parties to stand and applaud.
But as he did at a news conference Tuesday with President Barack Obama, Abe stopped short of offering an apology for Japanese conduct during the war, including sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Asian women by Japan's imperial army. South Korea and a number of U.S. lawmakers have sought such an apology, but Abe did not offer one.
Instead, he expressed "feelings of deep remorse over the war" and acknowledged that "our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries, we must not avert our eyes from that."
Later in the speech, without directly referring to World War II, Abe said: "Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most. In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses."
Abe described visiting the World War II memorial on the National Mall, and reflecting upon the 400,000 American war dead "with deep repentance in my heart."
"What is done cannot be undone," Abe said. But he hailed the alliance that rose from the ashes of that terrible conflict 70 years ago, saying that "Enemies that had fought each other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit."
"What should we call this, if not a miracle of history?" Abe asked.
Abe entered the House chamber to warm applause, smiling broadly and delivering handshakes on all sides. He delivered his remarks from prepared text in heavily accented English.
He also sought support for a 12-nation trans-Pacific trade pact that has divided Congress and provoked opposition in Japan, telling lawmakers it should be completed "for the sake of our children and our children's children."
Abe arrived in the midst of a bruising battle in Washington over legislation that would give Obama the authority to negotiate the deal, a cornerstone of his second-term agenda. In a reversal of politics-as-usual, it's Obama's own Democratic base that opposes him, and Republicans who support the deal.
After an Oval Office meeting with Abe on Tuesday, where the two leaders declared progress in bilateral trade talks that are critical for completing a wider TPP agreement among nations accounting for 40 percent of global GDP, Obama conceded to reporters: "It's never fun passing a trade bill in this town."
Abe told lawmakers that the Pacific trade deal is about spreading the shared values of rule of law, democracy and freedom.
"It is also about our security. Long-term, its strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that," Abe said. "Let us bring the TPP to a successful conclusion through our joint leadership."
The line drew a warm response from Republicans in the chamber, but most Democrats did not applaud. Republican have acknowledged they'll need Democratic support to get the trade bill through the House, and earlier Wednesday the top vote-counter for House Republicans, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, complained that "one thing we don't see is that strong push by the administration to move more Democrats to support this initiative."
Since winning election in December 2012, Abe has been strong advocate of closer ties with the U.S. He's been granted the full pomp and ceremony at the White House, and was feted Tuesday night with a state dinner.
But it was the invitation to address Congress that sets him apart from his predecessors. While past Japanese prime ministers — including Abe's own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in 1957 — have addressed the House, it was the first time for a leader of the East Asian nation to speak to both chambers.
Another theme of his speech was security cooperation, which is set to intensify with the revision this week of U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that will allow Japan's military to play a bigger role in global military operations and work more closely with U.S. forces, and possibly come to their defense.
Obama's focus on Asian allies and the trade deal is viewed as a way to counter China's growing might. Abe alluded indirectly to disputes between China and its neighbors over claims to waters and islands when he asserted that "we must make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans seas of peace and freedom, where all follow the rule of law."