WASHINGTON — Seventy years after the end of World War II, Japan wants to look to the future but can't shake off its past. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the U.S. next week, he will be promoting a regional free trade pact and stronger defense ties with America as his government loosens the shackles of Japan's pacifist constitution.
But history will be following him.
And it's not just Japan's arch critics on the issue, South Korean and China, that will be watching what he says. So will Korean-Americans who have championed the cause of former sex slaves of the imperial Japanese military, and the dwindling ranks of elderly U.S. veterans who suffered as prisoners of war.
In an unusual step, 25 House members have sent a letter to Japan's ambassador to the U.S., urging Abe to address sensitive issues of history when he becomes the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress next Wednesday, a day after meeting President Obama.
"To ignore past atrocities, Mr. Speaker, is to ensure a very troubling future," Democratic Rep. Steve Israel said in the House this week.
Under Abe, Japan's government has given an impression of apology fatigue.
Since the 1990s, Japanese governments have apologized directly for wartime aggression and treatment of so-called comfort women — tens of thousands of women across Asia, many of them Koreans, who were forced to provide sex to Japan's front-line soldiers.
Abe says his government upholds those apologies, and he has spoken of his "heartfelt sympathy" for the comfort women. But he appears reluctant to repeat another apology himself, despite the complications that has caused in Tokyo's attempts to improve relations with Beijing and Seoul.
In this Oct. 26, 2014, file photo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, walks by a mock-up of the F-35 fighter jet during the annual Self-Defense Forces Commencement of Air Review at Hyakuri Air Base, north of Tokyo.
Photo Credit: Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Abe's hawkish reputation has made him a target of sometimes shrill criticism in neighboring countries, but he did little to help matters when he visited a controversial Tokyo shrine in December 2013 where war criminals, including wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, are among those memorialized.
His speech to Congress will be watched for signs of how he might phrase a formal statement in August marking the war anniversary.
Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae said Abe's focus will be on the current and future challenges in the U.S.-Japan relationship, including the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and mutual defense guidelines. Abe's Cabinet has re-interpreted an article of its pacifist constitution and is pushing security legislation that, if approved by Japan's parliament, would allow Japan in some circumstances to defend U.S. forces if they come under attack.
Sasae said he expects Abe will speak about World War II, but added that Congress is not the right place to talk about other countries' concerns over history. "This is not something we need to focus on as a major agenda between Washington and Tokyo," he said.
The war is certainly less of a smoldering issue in the U.S. than it is in Northeast Asia.
A survey published this month by the Pew Research Center showed that despite the war and the fierce economic competition between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s, 68 percent of Americans now trust Japan a great deal, although there's less support for Japan playing a more active military role in the Asia-Pacific.
The U.S. has tens of thousands of troops based in Japan and South Korea, and treaty commitments that could see it drawn into any Japan-China conflict, so it has a stake in how Tokyo gets on with its neighbors.
The U.S. also has a vocal Korean-American community, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, who are using their new-found political muscle to knock on doors of their U.S. lawmakers and gain attention to Korean nationalist causes, particularly about comfort women.
Korean-American activists are planning protests and critical press ads for Abe's visit. One of the 53 Korean comfort woman survivors, Lee Yong-soo, 87, has been flown to the United States. With a trembling voice, she told reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill that Abe was "denying the truth."
She said at age 16, she had been taken from her home in Korea and shipped to Taiwan and forced to serve Japanese soldiers, who beat her and used electric shocks on her when she resisted. She said the two years of servitude had "destroyed her life." She demanded Abe make an official apology.
U.S. veterans of World War II also have grievances, but they are much lower key. Japan's government has apologized to former American prisoners of war, and in recent years has paid for "friendship visits" to Japan for survivors, giving them a more positive view of the country.
Instrumental in the friendship visits has been Lester Tenney, 94, who is among the 200 guests invited for a dinner Abe will be hosting in Washington. Tenney said he wants an apology from Japanese industrial corporations that exploited U.S. prisoners of war like himself as slave laborers.
Another former POW, Darrell Stark, 93, is worried that some in Japan are trying to rewrite wartime history.
"I have no hatred for Japan, although they treated me like an animal, and I have no problem with today's Japanese people for what happened 70 years ago," said Stark. "But I do object to Japanese people not telling history the way it was."