President Obama and Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe at the White House Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
Opinion writer

It may not be obvious during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s choreographed visit to Washington this week, but he’s a study in contradictions. The dissonance actually helps explain how Abe is trying to revive a moribund Japan.

Abe is a deeply conservative man who has become an “accidental progressive” in his drive to shake up the Japanese economy, a close aide says. He wants to express “remorse” for Japan’s wartime actions without formally apologizing for them. He wants a more assertive military role for a nation that has made pacifism part of its national identity. He rules an aging, tradition-bound country that seeks a vigorous, innovative future.

Abe has another anomalous trait that he shares with his host, President Obama. In their push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, both appear willing to offend some of their closest supporters. In Abe’s case, this has meant confronting agricultural interests, which are a key constituency. For Obama, it means upsetting liberal Democrats and their trade union friends.

The Japanese leader needed to challenge Japan’s political “dinosaurs,” a top aide explained recently in Tokyo, because “part of our economy is still mid-20th century.”

The Abe visit is a reminder of the economic and strategic importance of Japan in an Asia dominated by a rising China. Japan was often an afterthought during its two decades of economic stagnation. But if Abe can manage the contradictions inherent in his policies and revive Japan, he’ll make America’s job of containing China much easier.

Abe’s theme, that “Japan is back,” sits uneasily with memories of Japan’s role in World War II. To convey his “remorse,” Abe visited Arlington National Cemetery. On the controversial issue of Korean “comfort women,” he repeated Monday at Harvard the formulation he coined in an interview with me in Tokyo: “My heart aches when I think about these people who were victimized by human trafficking and who were subject to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description.”

Aides say the reason Abe doesn’t go further is that he feels it would be dishonest to apologize personally for events for which he had no responsibility. One of his close advisers explains: “He belongs to a peculiar generation that thought of ourselves as a failed nation. Japan-hating was necessary.” Abe wants to break with that.

The Japanese leader has embraced the TPP as part of a framework that, over the long run, can help Japan (and the United States) compete with a surging Chinese economy. But for both Abe and Obama, the pact will come with a severe short-term political cost.

Abe’s challenge is that the trade deal will require compromises from big power blocs that support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Abe boasted in his Harvard speech about how he had taken on these interests. “I have tenaciously engineered a series of reforms, . . . and I will be fearless going forward.” He said he wants a reformed Japan “to think of itself again as ‘the little engine that could.’ ”

Obama’s political test is similar. Liberal Democrats are in open revolt against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, claiming it is a “secret” pact that will destroy jobs and harm the environment. A peeved Obama pushed back last week at what he called “dishonest” anti-TPP arguments, calling them “a bunch of ad hominem attacks and misinformation.”

After Abe leaves town, the administration will step up its lobbying campaign with a detailed rebuttal contending that the TPP “incorporates and goes beyond” the labor and environmental protections of previous trade agreements. The administration argues that because Canada and Mexico will join the TPP, it, in effect, “renegotiates NAFTA to include strong and enforceable labor standards.”

Japanese officials remember the days when workers in Detroit were using sledgehammers to pound imported Japanese cars, and they’re nervous about a backlash from trade unions. They say that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has warned in negotiations that “the hardest issue will be labor,” hoping to squeeze Japanese concessions.

Abe’s visit underlines a deeper issue for the United States in Asia. Can America maintain a network of economic and military alliances — anchored by Japan — that will convince China that it’s better off working within the U.S.-led system than challenging it? The best argument for the TPP is that it’s a cornerstone of that network.

Abe will leave the United States grateful for Obama’s description of the “indestructible partnership” with Japan, but surely wondering if Obama can deliver the votes to make that partnership stronger.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.