Japan PM Abe invited to address US Congress April 29

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The leader of the US Congress has invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make a landmark address to American lawmakers on April 29, House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday.

"Prime Minister Abe will become the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of the United States Congress, and we are proud to host this historic event," Boehner said in a statement.

"His address will provide an opportunity for the American people to hear from one of our closest allies about ways we can expand our cooperation on economic and security priorities," Boehner said, including "working together to open markets and encourage more economic growth through free trade."

Few Japanese politicians have ever addressed Congress, and none have done so in a coveted joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Prime minister Nobusuke Kishi addressed the US House on June 20, 1957, while prime minister Hayato Ikeda did so almost exactly four years later, according to congressional records.

Abe is to embark on a week-long US tour late next month as the two former enemies prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The address to Congress will crown a visit expected to focus on deepening trade and military ties while showcasing Tokyo's commitment to post-war pacifism.

On April 28, President Barack Obama will host Abe for talks and a state dinner will be held in the Japanese prime minister's honour that night, the White House said.

In addition to Washington, Abe will tour Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles during the April 26-May 3 trip, Tokyo officials said.

On the sidelines of Abe's trip, the foreign and defense ministers of the two nations will hold a so-called "two-plus-two" meeting, according to Japanese media.

After their bitter battles across the Pacific during the war - Tokyo announced its surrender on August 15, 1945 - Japan became a loyal US ally, housing bases for American forces and strengthening ties with its former enemy.

The 60-year-old Abe's visit comes as Washington presses Japan to mend frayed ties with fellow US ally South Korea and with China.

PERSISTENT REGIONAL FRICTION

Beijing and Seoul will be closely watching what Abe says in a special statement to mark seven decades since the end of the war, during which its Asian neighbours suffered from Japanese militarism.

Last week, Seoul urged Abe to use the opportunity to express his "sincere repentance" for wartime atrocities, while China's foreign ministry merely noted the reports of the invitation.

Abe's government has publicly endorsed a 1995 apology for wartime wrongs.

But Korea was hoping he addresses Japan's controversial emphasis on patriotism in schools and making visits to a shrine that honours the war dead, including convicted war criminals.

Seoul believes Tokyo has yet to fully atone for the excesses of its colonial past and the forced recruitment of South Korean women to wartime military brothels.

The friction is an irritant for Washington, which would rather see its two key regional allies bury the hatchet and focus on forming a united front against an increasingly assertive China.

The issue of wartime sex slavery was also behind some US opposition to Abe's invitation, sources said.

Japan says it has already apologised, offered financial compensation and psychological help to victims.

Diplomatic sources said that Abe's speech was expected to echo some of the themes from his July address to the Australian parliament, where he expressed humility about the "evils and horrors" of Japan's history.

The visit comes amid intense negotiations over the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade agreement including Japanese participation, in which Washington and Beijing are jostling for influence.