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For Japan's Prime Minister, U.S. Visit A Chance To Elevate Image

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this month in Tokyo. Abe's visit to the U.S. this week features an agreement for the Japanese military to have a more active role.
Franck Robichon
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this month in Tokyo. Abe's visit to the U.S. this week features an agreement for the Japanese military to have a more active role.

Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is in the U.S. this week for a tightly packed visit that will focus largely on the strong ties between the U.S. and its closest Asian ally.

There was a time not so long ago that the prime minister's office in Tokyo appeared to have a revolving door. Japan went through four prime ministers during President Obama's first three years in office.

Abe was first elected as prime minister in 2006, but that tenure lasted just one year, in large part because of health problems. When he swept to power again in late 2012, he was determined to rebuild Japan's battered economy and elevate the country's role on the world stage. This visit should help with the latter goal as Abe will have a summit with Obama and a state dinner at the White House with 300 guests.

Image is important to the Abe administration, and it'll be on display during this U.S. visit, says Shihoko Goto, an Asia specialist with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"He's very charismatic ... he has a very charming wife and so she will be a great asset to him at the public events. ... The White House is really going out full force to roll out the red carpet for him," she says.

One of the first things the two allies will do is sign an updated defense agreement that, among other things, would allow for Japan to respond militarily should U.S. interests be attacked. That's important given concerns over North Korea's nuclear capability and China's rising military prowess.

Since World War II, Japan has had a pacifist constitution, which has constrained its military. Abe has been seeking to ease restrictions on the armed forces, Goto says.

"The neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous. And also the fact that the United States is overstretched and that Japan really does need to step up to the plate to ensure not only its own stability and security, but also the region's stability and security as well," she says.

The role of Japan's military could cast a shadow during Abe's visit. Korean groups and others are calling on him to apologize for Japan's aggression during World War II when he addresses Congress.

It is the first time ever a Japanese prime minister will address a joint meeting of Congress, and there will be two key audiences: U.S. lawmakers and the Asian community.

Gerald Curtis, a political professor at Columbia University, says Abe will have to tread carefully in his speech — address the war, then move on.

"It's an opportunity to celebrate the success of Japanese postwar democracy and diplomacy, and the U.S.-Japan alliance. But he has to deal with this history issue so that it doesn't completely ... drive attention away from really what's most important, which is where we go from now on," he says.

One of the things the U.S. is looking for is to reinforce its commitment to Asia, which includes solidifying economic ties. Central to that is an enormous Asia-Pacific trade deal, called the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Japan and the U.S. have been locked in the final, toughest stages of negotiations over things like imports of rice and American cars. Alison Evans, an Asia specialist at IHS Country Risk, believes that the differences could be worked out by the time the two leaders meet.

"These negotiations have gone on for a couple years, however with Abe's visit to Washington, D.C., there's been a lot of momentum that has brought the negotiators on the Japanese and the U.S. side together," she says.

Evans says that could give both Obama and Abe a chance to say there has been progress when the two leaders meet this week.

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Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.