CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday his administration is trying to improve the status of women in his country as it also seeks to protect women's rights on the international stage.
Speaking during a brief appearance at Harvard University on Monday morning, he also extended condolences to Nepal after a weekend earthquake killed thousands, saying that Japan has already deployed emergency relief units and the island nation will "spare no effort" to support Nepal's recovery.
Abe, who is set to meet with President Obama and address Congress as part of a weeklong to the U.S. that kicked off in Boston, focused much of his prepared remarks on his efforts to pull Japan out of prolonged deflation.
"I will be fearless going forward because there is in Japan among its people a strong and growing desire to pursue reforms," Abe said through a translator. "My role is to lead the nation to think of itself again as the Little Engine That Could."
Abe stressed that a "stronger and more reliable" Japan is important to U.S. interests as he touched on economic and government reforms such as encouraging more foreign investment and greater participation of women in the workforce and politics in Japan.
But one of the more pointed moments came during the question-and-answer session, when a Harvard student asked why the prime minister continues to "deny" Japan's role in creating a system of sexual slavery during World War II.
Abe, through a translator, said Japan is making "various efforts" to provide "realistic relief" to the victims, without elaborating.
He also said the nation is taking a leading role in international women's human rights, giving millions of dollars to the United Nation's efforts in that arena.
"My heart aches when I think about the people that were victimized by human trafficking and who were subjected to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description," he said through the translator. "We have very resolutely determined that, in the 21st century, women's human rights should not be violated."
Dozens of protesters holding signs and banners outside were unimpressed, saying afterward that the remarks parroted similar statements Abe has made.
Phyllis Kim, executive director of the Korean American Forum of California, said Abe still has not addressed any of the specific requests victims and advocates seek, including a formal government apology, legal reparations and punishment of those responsible.
"He basically repeated the denial and the evasion of responsibility that he has been saying all along," she said. "He only said he has 'heartache.' That stops short of apology."
Abe started his day Monday at the Boston Marathon finish line with his wife and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to lay a wreath as a gesture of respect to victims of the 2013 bombings, which killed three people and injured over 260 more.
After Harvard, Abe was slated to visit MIT's Media Lab before heading to Washington D.C. to meet with President Barack Obama and, later, to become the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress.
Abe's U.S. trip began in Boston on Sunday with a visit to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and a dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry at his Boston home.
The Japanese prime minister will also visit Los Angeles and San Francisco.