WASHINGTON — History will be trailing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to the United States.
Abe intends to promote a free trade pact and stronger defense ties as his government loosens the shackles of Japan's pacifist constitution 70 years after the end of World War II.
But while Japan wants to look to the future, it cannot seem to shake off its past.
Korean-Americans who have championed the cause of former sex slaves of the imperial Japanese military will be watching what Abe says during his trip this coming week. So, too, will the shrinking ranks of American veterans who were prisoners of war.
In an unusual step, 25 House members wrote Japan's ambassador to the U.S. to urge Abe to address sensitive issues of history when he becomes the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress. Abe's speech Wednesday comes a day after his scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama.
"To ignore past atrocities," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., "is to ensure a very troubling future."
Since the 1990s, Japanese governments have apologized directly for wartime aggression and treatment of tens of thousands of women across Asia, many of them Korean, 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 those "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 China and South Korea.
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 will focus on current and future challenges in the U.S.-Japan relationship.