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Reporter’s Notebook: Japan’s Shinzo Abe and the value of international friendship

The speech to a Joint Meeting of Congress by late Japanese leader Shinzo Abe always stood out to me.

That’s partly because it helped my wife Carrie and I establish an international friendship.

Abe made it a point to work with American presidents as diverse as Barack Obama and Donald Trump to nurture the relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

Joint Meetings of Congress with foreign dignitaries are a little rare. Three such orations in a year is on the high end. Maybe one a year. Often, there are none at all.

FORMER JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE ASSASSINATED DURING CAMPAIGN SPEECH, HOSPITAL OFFICIALS CONFIRM

With due respect, I don’t recall anything about the address by former Latvia President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in June 2006. I bet few others do, either. The same with former South Korean leaders Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun Hye, in 2011 and 2013 respectively. I do recall remarks by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. The same with former Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko in 2014. And certainly, the address by Pope Francis in September 2015.

But, Abe’s speech in April 2015 stood out, both because of his remarks and because of whom I shuttled that day to see their leader in person.

I had never set foot in Japan until the spring of 2014. I try to at least visit the local legislature whenever I travel abroad or to a different state. I’ve been to parliaments ranging from Scotland to Germany to the Bahamas. In fact, I was told I couldn’t visit the Bahamian Senate because – surprise – I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. Stunning, I know. I hustled back to the hotel and donned a blazer, tie and dress pants and took a cab back to the parliamentary building. Only then did I gain admittance, now sporting the appropriate attire.

I’ve also been to most of Canada’s provincial legislatures. I highly recommend the building in Victoria, British Columbia. Gorgeous setting on the water. I was stunned when the security staff practically begged us to come into the provincial assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba, one December. And frankly, we didn’t mind because the temperature was around 2 degrees Fahrenheit. They wanted an audience for a high school, mock parliamentary assembly which convened in the main legislative chamber.

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So it was only natural that Carrie and I wanted to visit Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, when in Tokyo. We could see the 215-foot tall “Central Tower” of the Diet from our hotel. But when we got close, it was impossible to tell how to get in. We wandered around a bit. There seemed to be a line of Japanese tourists snaking out of a tour bus. So we jumped in line there, thinking it may eventually lead us to the assembly. But it was far from clear that waiting in this line would get us into the legislature. 

That was until a Japanese man and his wife approached us and asked in broken English if we were trying to get a tour. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, wave prior to their departure to New York, at Haneda airport in Tokyo in November 2016.

Yes! Perhaps they could help us. 

They introduced themselves. The man was Akitsugu (Aki) Kimura. His wife was Mizuho Kimura. They were going in for a tour as well. Aki was a member of the Japanese military and was about to take part in a military exchange program with the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They would be happy to help us get in. Plus, this gave them both a chance to practice their English. 

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Aki grabbed me and walked ahead of the line, telling Carrie to wait with Mizuho. We walked in to a small building where Aki filled out several forms. Aki told me he’d get us in as a “family.” 

Twenty minutes later, were inside and on a tour of the Diet. 

By 2015, Aki and Mizuho were in Carlisle with their daughter Hikari. I knew I had to return the favor when I learned that then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Shinzo Abe to speak to a Joint Meeting of Congress in April, 2015. Washington, D.C, is only a two-hour and 15-minute drive from Carlisle. I asked if they would like to come to see their leader speak to a Joint Meeting of Congress. Naturally, the answer was yes.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden toasting Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe at the State Department in Washington on April 28, 2015.

I’m now going to let you in on a little secret about Joint Meetings of Congress with foreign dignitaries. Sometimes there isn’t much demand for seats inside the House chamber. It depends on the “star power” of the foreign leader speaking to Congress. 

The Pope? 

You would have a better chance of getting tickets to watch Taylor Swift, the Super Bowl and “Hamilton” – simultaneously. 

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Gordon Brown? Above average demand for tickets. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in April 2019? Not so much. However, the demand for that ticket probably grew exponentially after the war in Ukraine, and the prospective ascension of Sweden and Finland into NATO.

Shinzo Abe? High. But not stratospheric like for the Pope. 

But there are only 1,665 seats in the public viewing gallery in the House chamber. So, I needed to make a few phone calls. Within a few hours, I secured a couple of seats for Abe’s address for our friends from Japan. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaing during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo in August 2020.

Aki and Mizuho drove down from Carlisle. I would then take them to the Capitol and be there for the speech myself since I cover Congress. Carrie took Hikari for the day around to some of the sights on the National Mall, including the Natural History Museum. 

I recall walking Aki and Mizuho up to the Capitol and being stopped by a Capitol Police officer. They had tightened the security perimeter around the building that day because of Abe’s presence. I showed the officer the tickets they had to the speech. He let us pass. 

Later in the day, I showed Aki and Mizuho around the Capitol. I even introduced them to Boehner and current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy was whip at the time. 

POMPEO ON ABE: ‘HE WAS THE PERFECT PARTNER FOR THE UNITED STATES’

One thing stood out about Abe’s speech. Many political leaders quote from Shakespeare, Churchill or Plato when delivering oratory in such a setting. 

Not Shinzo Abe. He spoke about the friendship between the U.S. and Japan, and quoted an unlikely source. 

“When I was young in high school and listened to the radio, there was a song that flew out and shook my heart. It was a song by Carole King,” said Abe. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressing Parliament in Tokyo.

The late prime minister then quoted King. 

“When you’re down and troubled, close your eyes and think of me. And I will be there to bright up even your darkest night,” said Abe. “Yes. We’ve got a friend in you.” 

Abe was appreciative of the friendship between the U.S. and Japan – especially after the major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in 2011.

Aki and Mizuho showed my wife and I kindness as we were bewildered tourists trying to gain entry to the National Diet in Japan.

And we were glad to return the favor to our friends here on Capitol Hill the next year.

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