With Whitewater Half a World Away, Clintons Charm Japan

A 'super-first-class' American leader wins praise in land used to formal politicians

Mitsuharu Yanagisawa has been welcoming dignitaries to Japan's parliament for 30 years, but it doesn't seem to have left him jaded. Formally outfitted in a brocaded black jacket, he stood at attention yesterday morning in the parliament's portico, amid crimson carpets and imposing columns.

President and Mrs Clinton arrived, greeted their Japanese hosts, and proceeded to the chamber of Japan's lower house, where Mr. Clinton was to give a speech.

After all the VIPs had gone inside, Mr. Yanagisawa and the other guards quickly gathered for a commemorative photo - next to the presidential limousine. Yanagisawa seemed a little sheepish about the snapshot, but not about his guest. Clinton looked "super-first-class," he said with a smile. "He's so young," he added. "It's wonderful. He seems fit to be a world leader."

The White House and the Japanese government have both declared Clinton's visit here to be a success, and if the judgments of a few Japanese citizens are any guide, there is substance to the spin.

A Japanese translation of "Primary Colors," a tell-all fictionalized account of the Clinton presidential campaign, hasn't hit the bookstores yet. Nor has this nation witnessed three years of Whitewater investigations, ribbing about the presidential waistline, or criticisms of Hillary Rodham Clinton's role.

So the impression Clinton has created seems almost naive - it recalls his early days as president, when his age and his jogging were seen as signs of vigorous leadership. The first lady has stayed in the background, but she, too, has impressed Japanese women as someone who is in charge of her own life.

The first couple closed their three-day state visit with a stop at a Chrysler dealership in Tokyo to celebrate increased sales of American cars in Japan. Inside the showroom an orchestrated, message-oriented political event took place. Clinton chatted about the progress his administration had achieved in opening Japanese markets to American cars, and his wife got behind the wheel.

Mrs. Clinton didn't go anywhere, but she did accentuate the fact that US automakers have finally begun building cars with the steering wheel on the right. This feature makes them more appealing to drivers in Japan, where people drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Outside, a less scripted variety of political theater took place. Hundreds of passersby had gathered in hopes of a presidential sighting. They cheered, whistled, and clapped when Clinton appeared after his stop at the showroom, and he encouraged them with some waving of his own. People in the crowd were holding up their babies.

"The way he waves to the people - it's quite different from a Japanese prime minister," said Akio Inaba, who drives a taxi at night. Japanese premiers tend to be more formal in public. They also lack the regalia that accompanies a state visit - a helicopter overhead, phalanxes of police, and squadrons of photographers and reporters. (Clinton spoke frequently this week about the need for joint efforts to combat terrorism. The level of security surrounding his visit created circumstances reminiscent of the aftermath of the nerve-gas subway attack in Tokyo last year: sealed coin lockers, the removal of public trash cans, thousands of police.)

Mr. Inaba said he had been "moved" by exchanging waves with Clinton and promised to tell his kids "everything" that he'd seen. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.

Kuniko Inoguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University, was also impressed by her encounter with the Clintons at a high-profile luncheon for 300 notables organized by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The president "conveyed a very positive, strong image, yet representing a younger generation," she said later.

Clinton's status as a baby boomer is a big plus in the eyes of the Japanese, because he is seen as less likely to think of Asia as backward or the Japanese as war-mongering. "He's young enough to be able to talk about a real partnership," she said, referring to a theme the president repeatedly addressed during his stay. "He takes Asia seriously."

Ms. Inoguchi also raved about a "very self-assertive-looking" Mrs. Clinton, who appeared both as "the wife of a president as well as an independent woman of this era." The lunch "made everyone feel very happy about US-Japan relations."

The first lady's sartorial choices, which tended toward dark colors, appealed to Toshiko Kakuya. "Her fashion reflects her pride in being an intelligent woman," said Ms. Kakuya, a Tokyo film shop employee who saw the Clintons on television. "I can't think of any woman as intelligent as she is," gushed Kakuya.

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