The fact that Japan was the first stop on the secretary of State's Asia itinerary was a strong start. (In 1998, President Bill Clinton sent a different message, bypassing Japan completely after a week-plus trip to China.) She'll visit Indonesia, South Korea, and then China. Her invitation to Prime Minister Taro Aso to meet President Obama at the White House next week will also go down very well, a boon to the floundering Japanese leader. His approval ratings have fallen below 10 percent and could hit a new bottom given his finance minister's resignation after apparently showing up intoxicated at a G-7 forum last weekend.
Of course, Clinton hedged her bets, also meeting with opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa.
The two countries' central focus is inevitably the global financial crisis. Japan set an unhappy record yesterday as its export-dependent economy registered its worst drop in GDP since 1974 – 12.7 percent. Some economists say the term "depression" may soon trump mere recession.
All the more reason for the US and Japan, the world's No. 2 economy and America's most important ally in the Pacific, to work closely together.
Clinton touched on a variety of issues. The two countries signed an agreement to begin to move US Marines from Okinawa to Guam, part of a long-gestating plan that the Monitor reported in 2006 would "substantially deepen the mutual alliance, mission and capability."
Clinton also met with family members of Japanese abducted decades ago by North Korea – an issue deeply upsetting to Japanese, who claim that North Korea has not fully accounted for their missing relatives. But Clinton promised only to "think about" the families' request that North Korea be restored to the US list of countries that support terrorism. She did warn North Korea not to test a ballistic missile – noting it would be "unhelpful."
She offered a bow to Japan's environmental leadership, suggesting that it and the US could be of help to China in leapfrogging "harmful patterns of development." Japan, as the Monitor noted in December, excels at high-tech recycling, fuel-friendly vehicles, and energy-efficient manufacturing.
Despite the doldrums in which Japan finds itself, the Clinton visit is a welcome – and warranted – recognition of the country's political, military, and economic importance to the United States.