Koizumi visit presents a tougher Japan
The prime minister meets Bush amid concerns over rising Japanese nationalism.
Junichiro Koizumi, the silver-maned lion of Japanese politics, is on his last official US visit. Japan's prime minister will step down in September after six years at the helm.Skip to next paragraph
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As he visits his No. 1 ally, Mr. Koizumi's legacy as an upstart reformer seems assured back home: He busted up the old power-shogun cliques that ran Japan. He altered the nation's pacifist image, and self-image, by sending troops to Iraq; 100 Japanese planes will provide Iraq air support next month.
The US-Japan military and maritime alliance is melding more tightly – including Patriot missile deployments against North Korea – even as US forces and bases in Okinawa are being downsized and mothballed.
Yet Koizumi's tenure has brought an often troubling new nationalist spirit – seen in his multiple trips to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo and new forms of right-wing racist rhetoric – that angers China and South Korea, nations the White House wants to work with and not alienate.
Currently, neither South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun or President Hu Jintao of China have plans to meet Koizumi before he departs from office.
"The shrine visits are not in the US interest, and as the US-Japan alliance gets stronger, the US should discourage them," says Ezra Vogel, a senior Asia expert at Harvard University. "We need to tell Japan, as a friend, that the way it handles the shrine makes the US job in the region more difficult. We can say that if Japan wants to promote friendship in east Asia, this is not the way to do it."
It is considered axiomatic in Japanese relations that overt or highly public commentary about domestic behavior by foreign politicians can scupper efforts to influence Tokyo.
Yet there is some US fallout over Koizumi's decision not to foreclose an Aug. 15 shrine visit. Instead of an earlier possibility to have Koizumi address Congress, he will join President Bush on a trip to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, on Air Force One. The Bush-Koizumi relationship is regarded as very close, perhaps rivaled only by the mutuality between Bush and Tony Blair.
Japanese officials are eager to point out they engage in many kinds of dialogue and exchanges with East Asian nations. They have energy talks, cultural exchanges, and many levels of diplomacy; Japan has been a leader in distributing aid in Asia. It is unfair to simply boil relations down to the shrine, they say.
"There are many voices and points of view in Japan, and I think the general trend of Japan's relations with neighbors is upward," says Foreign Ministry press secretary Yoshinori Katori.
But in East Asian capitals, Koizumi's shrine visits are widely seen as a provocative denial of World War II Japanese aggression; a high court in Tokyo in recent days refused to say whether the visits were an unconstitutional abridgement of church and state. The issue will reach another peak this summer if Koizumi visits Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered in World War II.
Under the rules of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Koizumi is not eligible for another term. Having won a landslide victory in one of Japan's most colorful elections ever last September, the prime minister nonetheless said he would step down.