Shinzo Abe's vision for 21st century US-Japan relations

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background, on April 27, 2015. Abe is on a weeklong visit to the U.S.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background, on April 27, 2015. Abe is on a weeklong visit to the U.S.

On Wednesday, Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese prime minister since World War II to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. That honor may offer a huge morale boost for the demoralized Japanese, whose economy plunged 15 years ago and is only just now showing modest signs of revival. It will also give Abe an unprecedented platform to broadcast his vision of a revitalized, 21st century Japan.

Still, for all the levity he has showed during his trip so far, Abe will be walking into the U.S. Capitol with the weight of history solidly on his shoulders and his most engaged audience half a world away, in China and South Korea. Indeed, his speech Wednesday is much less important for the promises it may offer the future than it is about firmly addressing the specifics of Japan's wartime past.

August marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. This week also marks the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito, whose legacy many still associate with the brutal colonization and wartime atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers across much of east Asia in the 1930s and 40s. Unless Prime Minister Abe's remarks Wednesday offer an undeniable declaration of apology for Japan's behavior during the last World War, he will have squandered a major opportunity to restore confidence and goodwill among its neighbors, who are vital to the making of a new Japan.

A dramatic power shift

The timing of this particular state visit—only the eighth Obama has hosted since the beginning of his presidency—highlights a dramatic and uncertain power shift in the world's most vibrant economic region. Less than two decades ago, Asia was being heralded as a prime example of the benefits of "globalization," a panacea of economic growth and political democratization (albeit secured by the military might of the United States 7th Fleet).

Yet in recent years China's leaders have quietly leveraged the country's burgeoning economic power to project their strategic designs on the region. President Xi Jinping in particular has been unequivocal in his stance that China deserves political and military power concurrent with its new economic might. Lately, the atmosphere has become even more unsettled by the drums of discontent from unpredictable North Korea. According to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese nuclear experts estimate Pyongyang has as many as 20 nuclear warheads, which is twice current U.S. estimates.

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Ironically, Abe himself helped set the stage for heightened concern over stability in parts of the Pacific Rim. Beginning with his election two years ago, and since he won a new mandate in December, Japan's prime minister has taken a tough stance against Chinese claims to the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyutai to Chinese) in the East China Sea. He has expressed "remorse" ("hansei") over Japan's actions during the war, but has suggested dialing back on earlier explicit apologies made by his predecessors' administrations.

Earlier this year he angered U.S. and South Koreans alike by ordering his consul general in New York to pressure an American publishing house to excise mention of "comfort women," forced into prostituting themselves during Japan's colonization of Korea. Not that he shouldn't know better than to act the bully over such issues: Abe's grandfather was Japan's first post-U.S. occupation prime minister, and his father, Shintaro Abe, served as foreign minister in the 1980s. Although he may not have been alive for it, Shinzo Abe is all too aware of that ugly piece of Japan's past.

Polishing Japan Inc.'s brand

Although the Obama administration has urged a more delicate approach, Washington's own concern over China's muscle-flexing is obvious. On Monday, Obama and Abe announced a broad new defense framework that for the first time since 1945 specifically allows Japanese forces to defend U.S. interests. On the economic front, Japan followed the United States' lead in declining to become an inaugural member of the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an organization some fear is designed to compete directly with World Bank initiatives in the region.

More proactively, American officials have been pushing Japan to loosen its agricultural trade restrictions and join the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 21-nation free trade grouping that stretches from Australia to Chile and Vietnam. As Obama told The Wall Street Journal in an interview earlier this week: "If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region."

Ultimately, however, the only certain hedge against Chinese dominance in Asia is a healthy Japan. So far, "Abenomics"—the Prime Minister's self-styled blend of Keynesian stimuli, deregulation and a loose fiscal policy—has achieved only modest success. Wages are rising for the first time in a decade, and this month, the Nikkei stock market average hit a 15-year high. Economists are concerned that unless Japan's central bank continues to print money, however, the country will sink back into deflation.

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Most important, there is no sign of the tough agricultural and labor reforms that Abe promised. Abe is arguably the most powerful prime minister Japan has seen since the 1960s. Tokyo can look forward to the hosting the 2020 Olympics—a powerful symbolic role, since the 1964 Olympics helped launch Japan's first "economic miracle." Whatever he says to Congress this week, if Abe does not use the power he has to force change at home, Japan may indeed need a real miracle to emerge from the depths of its current despair.

—By Frank B. Gibney Jr., special to CNBC.com. Mr. Gibney is a former bureau chief for TIME and Newsweek in Tokyo and Beijing.