By: Todd Crowell

Korean-Americans are mobilizing to scuttle Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed address to a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States later this spring. The address would be a signal honor for the leader of one of America’s strongest allies if it comes off.

Abe would be the first Japanese leader to speak to the 535 Senators and Congressmen gathered in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Three early post-war premiers, including Abe’s grandfather Nobosuke Kishi, spoke to the House but not to the two chambers assembled.

Not the least is the sheer symbolic value of a Japanese prime minister speaking from the podium, from the very spot where President Franklin D Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech more than 70 years ago.

By way of contrast, every South Korean president going back to Kim Young-sam has addressed a joint session, most recently the incumbent president, Park Guen-hye in May, 2013. The privilege has been extended to three former Prime Ministers of India too but never to a Japanese leader.

The Korean-American Civic Empowerment organization has been gathering petition signatures opposing the idea of Abe’s address to Congress unless he promises never again to visit the Yasukuni shrine, which enshrines the spirits of, among many others, 14 former leaders convicted of war crimes.

Concurrently, the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women also announced it was beginning a nationwide petition drive to oppose the projected speech. “Abe denies the war crimes that Japan committed and continues to pay respects at the Yasukuni shrine . . . it [the speech] would be an insult to the comfort women who suffered during the war.”

“Comfort women” is the common term to denote Asia women conscripted to serve in Japanese army brothels during World War II.

The situation is beginning to look like an embarrassing reprise of the visit of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, when opposition in Congress scuttled a proposed speech. The premier was fobbed off with a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

The official position was that no invitation to address Congress was extended and none was requested by the Japanese government. But in reality, Tokyo was worried that the dispute over Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which had brought Japan’s relations with her neighbors to new lows, might blot what they hoped would be the out-going premier’s  victory lap.

Former Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois wrote then House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter asking that Koizumi reassure Congress that he would not pay another visit to the Yasukuni Shrine anytime soon after his speech. In his letter Hyde said he welcomed Koizumi speaking to Congress in principle, but added that making the speech and then visiting the Yasukuni shrine so soon thereafter would be “an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where president Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech.”

Koizumi visited the shrine every year during his five-year tenure. Abe has visited the shrine just once but has sent cabinet ministers or offerings on other occasions.

This time other members of congress are likely to weigh in. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colorado) has stated that “it is really important that Japan is not seen as backtracking on the comfort women and other issues.”  Obstruction might also come from Rep. Ed Royce, (R-California) chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, whose district has numerous Korean-American constituents.

In recent years the Korean-American community has run rings around the Japanese on such emotive issues as comfort women and using Korea’s preferred name for the Sea of Japan. Since World War II, the number of Korean immigrants has faroutpaced Japanese, and they tend to concentrate in larger homogeneous communities, where they have political influence.

Of course, Abe has not yet been formally invited to address Congress, although both the U.S. State Department and the Japanese government are working behind the scenes to schedule such a speech.

The decision rests with Speaker John Boehner, who seems receptive to the idea in principle but may not want to entertain another potentially controversial joint speech coming so soon after the huge brouhaha over the recent address by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shinzo Abe sees himself – and Japan – as major players on the world stage and would undoubtedly want to bolster his credentials as an international statesman with an address to Congress. He has already made several important international speeches including one to the Guild Hall in London and one to a joint session of Australia’s federal parliament.

A speech before the Congress would be a golden opportunity for Abe to present a frank and realistic vision of how he sees Japan’s role in an evolving Asia at a critical time when Tokyo is re-revaluating that role and while seeking to revive the Japanese economy through policies dubbed “Abenomics”.

Japan and the US are also revising their guidelines for joint military actions in view of Tokyo’s changing defense posture; there is also the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to talk about. Abe might want also to explain what he means by his vague catch phrase “pro-active pacifism.”

But many of the members may be fixated on historical issues. If it becomes a condition to never, ever to visit the Yasukuni Shrine again, that might become a deal-breaker. As for other issues, Tokyo is preparing to make a much anticipated statement on its role in World War II to be issued on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender this August.

Indeed, a 15-member committee is currently toiling away on what Abe should say in the name of the government and nation, and Abe may be reluctant to step on his August statement by devoting too much time to history. On the other hand, if he doesn’t plan to say something, he may not get a chance to speak at all.