TOKYO – On April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will address a joint session of the United States Congress. The Japan-US alliance is now 63 years old, but this will be the first time that a Japanese leader will be accorded this high honor from the American government and people.
Abe’s visit to the US comes at a time when friction between the two countries is at an all-time low. The trade and economic disputes that incited tensions – and a sub-genre of paranoid movies about Japan – in the 1980s, when nine members of Congress even smashed a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers, rarely make an appearance nowadays.
Those past disputes probably explain why former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, though a political soul mate of then-President Ronald Reagan, was never invited to address a joint session of Congress. Today, however, the bilateral relationship is very different. Japan’s economic interests are more closely aligned with America’s – the country is poised to join the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will create a vast free-trade zone among a dozen Pacific Rim countries – and the two sides’ strategic visions for Asia are in near-harmony.
Moreover, the long-simmering dispute over the US Marine Corps base on Okinawa, which had roiled bilateral relations during the years the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, has been settled amicably, with the US agreeing to move the base to a less populated part of the island. Of course, some Okinawa residents remain opposed to the US base’s continued presence on their island, but most Japanese recognize the need for this tangible symbol of their alliance with America, which remains the bedrock of Japan’s national-security strategy.