By Matt Spetalnick and Chizu Nomiyama
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Shinzo Abe becomes the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, he will face two formidable challenges: convincing skeptical lawmakers about a proposed Pacific trade pact and easing concerns about his views on Tokyo’s wartime past.
The Obama administration has rolled out the red carpet for Abe, seeking to showcase deeper defense ties and advance the long-delayed trade deal as the two allies work to counter China’s rising power in the region.
But with many of President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats reluctant to back his trade agenda for fear it will hurt U.S. jobs, Abe could have a hard time selling them on the need to break down trade barriers with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries involved in the negotiations.
While Abe is sure to receive a warm welcome in Congress as a reliable U.S. partner, the conservative premier – who has sought to cast Japan’s aggressive World War Two-era conduct with a less apologetic tone – can expect intense scrutiny of his speech for how he handles history.
The issue remains a sensitive one for Asian neighbors, especially China and U.S. ally South Korea, nearly 70 years after Japan’s defeat.
Some American critics, including politicians and war veterans, have urged Abe to use the speech to make a strong public expression of contrition about World War Two to erase concerns that he is trying to dilute past official statements of remorse by Japanese leaders.
Representative Mike Honda, a California Democrat, recently sent a bipartisan letter to the Japanese ambassador to Washington asking Abe to “squarely face history” during his speech.
It is scheduled for 11 a.m. EDT, shortly after Abe's deeply symbolic visit on Wednesday morning to Washington's World War Two memorial, which honors Americans killed in the conflict.
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Abe will address Congress from the spot where President Franklin Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Imperial Japan after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The speech will coincide with Japan’s national holiday marking the birthday of its wartime emperor, Hirohito.
Abe will speak just a day after White House talks with Obama in which the two leaders cemented new guidelines for the U.S.-Japan military alliance to allow Japanese forces to take on an expanded role.
Japan's military is considering joining the United States in maritime air patrols in the tense South China Sea in response to China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims there, a Japanese and a U.S. source familiar with the discussions told Reuters.
If Abe sticks to the script he has followed since launching his U.S. trip earlier this week, he is likely to uphold previous Japanese apologies, including a 1995 landmark statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, but will probably stop short of directly issuing any new ones.
When asked at a joint news conference with Obama on Tuesday whether he would make a full apology for Japan's wartime actions, Abe repeated what he said on Monday.
"I am deeply pained to think about the 'comfort women' who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking," he said. "This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors."
"Comfort women" is a Japanese euphemism for the thousands of Korean and other Asian women forced into prostitution at Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two.
Many Japanese conservatives have said there is no proof of direct state involvement in kidnapping the women.
Abe is under pressure from critics to allay concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan's role of wartime aggression. His 2013 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead but is also where a number of convicted war criminals are memorialized, angered Seoul and Beijing.
But Abe’s conservative domestic allies feel fresh apologies are unneeded.
Obama’s aides, mindful of the regional tensions stoked by Abe’s ambivalent views of history, have insisted Washington wants Abe to deal with history in a forthright, constructive way. They have declined to say whether they recommended any language for Abe’s speech, which his aides say he will deliver in English.
An official traveling with Abe said there was “no notable discussion” of the speech in talks with Obama on Tuesday, except for the president saying he looked forward to hearing it.
Obama will follow the presidential custom and not be present.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jeffrey Benkoe)