Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's leader heads to Washington eyeing the potential prize of a huge trade deal that would anchor his "Abenomics" plan for future economic revival, while still dogged by his nation's wartime past.
Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress next week, where he will showcase Japan's evolution from sworn enemy to loyal US ally at a time when China is on the march.
On the table for White House talks with President Barack Obama is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a US-led initiative to tear down trade barriers covering 40 percent of the world economy that excludes China.
A deal between Japan and the United States would push the 12-nation pact much closer to reality after years of talks, beating Beijing's rival bid for a common trade region in east and southeast Asia.
It would also help the two allies seize back the initiative after China's launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which saw dozens of US allies signing up, to Washington's discomfort.
For Abe, the TPP could transform Japan's cossetted agriculture sector, stripping out some of the enormous tariffs under which Japanese farmers have long sheltered.
That would deliver a decent chunk of the "third arrow" of his "Abenomics" overhaul of the world's third-biggest economy: structural reform.
The first two arrows have been fired already as Abe bids to drag Japan out of more than two decades of stagnation: fiscal stimulus by the government, and drastic monetary easing by the Bank of Japan.
But economic recovery is not a done deal, and neither is the TPP. Obama faces opposition from labour unions and members of his Democratic Party, who warn it could put American jobs at risk.
- 'Unshakeable alliance' -
Abe leaves Sunday for a week-long visit that will also include stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston. The centrepiece will be his speech to Congress on Wednesday.
"For the last 70 years, the US-Japan alliance achieved many things, and I would like to express that this alliance is an unshakeable alliance," Abe told the Washington Post in a recent interview.
In parallel to his efforts on the economy, Abe is bidding to overhaul Japan's complicated attitude to its well-funded and well-trained armed forces.
Popular feeling meant he was unable to ditch constitutional restrictions limiting their role to self-defence, so he opted to reinterpret rules to allow Japanese soldiers to come to the aid of allies under attack.
The recasting, under Abe's "proactive pacifism" philosophy, has been welcomed by Washington, which is keen for Japan to shoulder more of the burden of its own defence.
Ahead of the summit with Obama on Tuesday, the US and Japanese defence and foreign ministers will thrash out updated guidelines for how their militaries work together, with "interoperability" the watchword.
"The Japan-US alliance will become more efficient," Abe told a Japanese television show.
"Its functions will be strengthened. Our bond will be stronger. As a result, deterrence will become stronger, and the region will become more stable and we can maintain peace."
The target of deterrence is not spelt out but while North Korea is a perennial threat, Abe has made clear his belief that China is destabilising the region via its assertive claims to territory at sea.
- History matters -
For its part, China -- and South Korea -- wants Abe to look history in the eye and repeat the explicit apologies made by past prime ministers for Japan's rampage across Asia before and during World War II.
Observers will be parsing the congressional address for hints about the content of Abe's upcoming statement in August on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
He would like to move past the apologies issued on the 50th and 60th anniversaries by predecessors, and put a new focus on Japan's pacifist record since 1945.
But former "comfort women" -- who were pressed into sexual slavery by the imperial Japanese army -- are demanding he use the high-profile forum to say sorry.
"I'm not going to die until we resolve this issue," 87-year-old victim Lee Yong-Soo told reporters in the US Capitol on Thursday, as 25 congressmen wrote to Japan's ambassador urging "humble reconciliation".
Mitsuru Fukuda of Nihon University said Abe needs to overcome the view in some US quarters that he is a nationalist hawk.
"Major US media, like the New York Times, have voiced open criticism about Mr Abe and Japan turning to the right," Fukuda said.
"He could use this trip to ease worries and lay out his vision for the Japan-US partnership in the face of a rising China," Fukuda said.
"The key will be how well Mr Abe explains his agenda to Congress and to the US media."