WASHINGTON - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday sought to explain to U.S. lawmakers a comment he made in March that seemed to minimize Japan's role in forcing thousands of Asian women into sexual slavery during World War II.
Abe's first U.S. trip as prime minister comes as lawmakers consider a nonbinding resolution that urges Japan to apologize formally for its role coercing residents of conquered nations to work as "comfort women" for the Japanese military.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said that Abe "expressed regret that his comments were not as he intended for them to be and expressed great sympathy with people who had been placed in that kind of situation." Abe met with the congressional leaders ahead of a meeting with President Bush.
People across Asia and the United States, including conservative supporters of Japan in Congress, were infuriated at Abe's suggestion in March that no proof existed that the military had coerced women into brothels. It seemed to some that Abe was backtracking on a 1993 government apology.
U.S. officials now say that Abe's recent public statements supporting the 1993 apology have been convincing and that Bush was unlikely to bring up the matter during meetings yesterday and today with Abe.
As Abe left Congress, he told reporters in English that he had had a good meeting.
Abe and Bush are meeting as both leaders deal with low popularity at home and some creeping tension in their countries' usually strong alliance.
They will look to publicly convey the health of a crucial bond that has gained importance as rival China accumulates economic and military power.
Abe's trip will not match the farewell U.S. visit of Junichiro Koizumi, his predecessor as prime minister. Bush and Koizumi played up their friendship, and Koizumi was treated to a presidential tour of Elvis Presley's Graceland home.
But Abe and Bush will be eager to build their own ties.
Both men, analysts say, also will be seeking respite from recent criticism. Abe's support rating has plunged, with voters angry over scandals involving members of his cabinet. Bush faces an opposition-controlled Congress incensed over his handling of the war in Iraq.
Abe and his wife, Akie, were to dine with Bush and his wife, Laura. Today, Bush and Abe will conduct meetings at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat.
Overall, the national relationship is strong. Japan is the largest financial contributor after the United States for the rebuilding effort in Iraq and hosts thousands of U.S. troops. And the countries are partners in international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
But friction exists. Japanese conservatives have expressed alarm at what some see as a "soft" U.S. stance on the North Korean nuclear talks. On another issue, U.S. ranchers and lawmakers are demanding that Japan fully resume U.S. beef imports.
Analysts say the goal of the trip, from Abe's perspective, will be to avoid any perception of strain.
"Every Japanese prime minister wants to have, and moreover wants to have the appearance of having, a close relationship with whoever is in the White House," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program.