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It would be tempting to view Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's upcoming visit to Pearl Harbor, 75 years after his country's fateful attack on the Hawaiian naval base drew the United States into the Second World War, as a mere reciprocation for President Barack Obama's pilgrimage earlier this year to Hiroshima.

But for Mr. Abe, there is no equivalence between what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the American dropping of the atomic bomb on Hirsohima and Nagasaki to end the war in 1945.

That's why Mr. Abe's officials were quick to point out, after Monday's announcement that he will join Mr. Obama at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 27, that he would not be arriving in Hawaii with an apology in hand. On the contrary. Mr. Abe has been fiercely unapologetic about Japan's militaristic past, to the point of seeking to change the country's U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to remove its interdictions on the use of force.

Mr. Abe "has a strong view about history. He doesn't see [Japan's] past behaviours as necessarily wrong," explains Yoshihide Soeya, a political science professor in the law faculty at Keio University in Tokyo. "Apology is not in his dictionary."

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That also makes Mr. Abe, who is surfing on a wave of unmatched popularity for a post-War Japanese leader, uniquely positioned to become his country's first sitting prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor. A less nationalist Japanese leader might be raked over the coals by opposition politicians for such a gesture. But Mr. Abe's patriotic bona fides are beyond doubt.

Kuni Miyake, research director at Tokyo's Canon Institute for Global Studies, calls this Mr. Abe's "Nixon in China" moment, likening the Pearl Harbor visit to former Republican president Richard Nixon's move to establish diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1972.

Prof. Soeya shares that view. Conservatives in Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and other nationalist formations on the right "may not be happy" about his visit to Pearl Harbor, but they will not publicly question it. "If the leader of the [pacifist] Democratic Party would have done this, however, there would have been huge opposition from the LDP," he says.

For Mr. Abe, the visit to Pearl Harbor, his final scheduled meeting with Mr. Obama before the President leaves the White House in January, is also meant to serve as a reminder to China, North Korea and Russia that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains unshakeable – or so he hopes.

Republican Donald Trump's comments during the election campaign that Japan and South Korea should bear more of the burden for their own defence – and might even need to acquire nuclear weapons to do so – led Mr. Abe to make a beeline to New York to meet the president-elect and calm rattled Japanese nerves. Some Japanese observers fear Mr. Trump might pull U.S. troops out of Japan altogether, allowing China to assert its military dominance unchallenged throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

China's creation of man-made islands in the South China Sea, which could be used to establish a permanent air and maritime military presence there, is seen by Japan as a provocation. The two countries have also been ratcheting up the rhetoric in their territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands – which are known in China as the Diaoyu Islands – in the East China Sea. Mr. Abe wants to know he can count on the United States to back Japan up as it seeks to halt China's expansionism.

After meeting Mr. Trump last month in New York, a seemingly relieved Mr. Abe described him as a "trustworthy leader." But no one can predict, perhaps not even Mr. Trump himself, what geopolitical world view will define an eventual Trump Doctrine. The president-elect's insistence that he will withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he calls "a potential disaster for our country," is a huge blow for Mr. Abe. He, along with Mr. Obama, sees the TPP as a key plank in their mutual China containment strategy.

Mr. Abe would likely be visiting Pearl Harbor regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election. But his trip has become even more important, symbolically at least, in light of Mr. Trump's victory. It provides Mr. Abe with a global stage on which to demonstrate for the incoming administration the critical nature of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Prof. Soeya thinks the Pearl Harbor visit could also serve as the unofficial beginning of a Japanese election campaign, if rumours suggesting that Mr. Abe could call an early vote in January are true. Though his term does not officially end until late 2018, an early call to the polls would all but ensure Mr. Abe's re-election and, should he serve out his full four-year term after that, make him the longest-serving prime minister since the Meiji period in the 19th century.

"He is an interesting figure in that respect," Prof. Soeya adds, in a typically Japanese understatement.

Konrad Yakabuski is in Japan this month on a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship.

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