With mixed messages being the current specialty of Japan's new government, today's meeting between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the controversial Japanese foreign minister will be closely watched.
Makiko Tanaka, the first woman to serve as Japan's chief diplomat, comes to the US ahead of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit in less than two weeks.
And while both are enjoying sky-high popularity ratings at home, Japan's Asian neighbors are skittish about the prospect of a more nationalistic Japan under its unconventional new prime minister, while the West seems similarly uncertain of where the man with the hip hairdo plans to lead his country.
Since becoming prime minister less than two months ago, Mr. Koizumi has made a string of eyebrow-raising announcements.
He says he will visit Tokyo's Yasakuni shrine, dedicated to Japan's war martyrs, later this summer. Some say the memorial was used in the past to stir up nationalist sentiments, and Japan's neighbors see the shrine as glorifying the country's wartime past.
Koizumi says that Japan will not reverse its decision to approve a middle-school history textbook that glazes over portions of the nation's militaristic history. And he says Japan should change its pacifist Constitution to allow for participation in "collective security," which would present a major departure from the domestic-only Self-Defense Forces Japan has limited itself to for more than half a century.
And at the same time that Koizumi has sent out conservative waves on what are seen as nationalistic, if symbolic, issues, the world has had an equally difficult time reading Ms. Tanaka.
Tanaka refused to meet with US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage when he came here last month to discuss the Bush administration's plans for a national missile defense program, saying she was stressed out and unprepared.
Shortly after, she visited China - the most vociferous opponent of President Bush's decision to explore missile defense possibilities.
Then the Japanese foreign ministry leaked remarks Tanaka allegedly made with the German foreign minister about the need to reassess the US-Japan security alliance, saying that relations between the two countries were at a "turning point" and expressing opposition to US missile defense.
On the most basic level, Koizumi looks keen to please Bush's security realpoliticians in Washington, while Tanaka seems intent to be on the same page as Beijing, hoping to bring along European leaders who are also chilly toward pursuing missile defense for fear it will spark a new global arms race.
Analysts say both Tanaka and Koizumi are still too fuzzy on their own security stratagem for anyone to determine whether there is a real schism between them.
Koizumi the candidate told reporters two months ago that he thought relations with the US should be Japan's No.1 priority; Koizumi the prime minister says he would not rule out opposing US missile-defense proposals outright.
What is clear is that the new faces of decisionmaking in Nagata-cho - Tokyo's equivalent of Capitol Hill - are being watched rather warily by their neighbors abroad.
"The one country's objectives which are not clear is Japan. Japan is rewriting its textbooks and it is building up its military capability," says Ron Morse, a political scientist at Reitaku University in Tokyo. "Japan is doing everything that will upset China, Korea, and the region."
"The question in the Bush Administration is, 'Is Japan a loyal ally? Why is it doing this?' " adds Mr. Morse.
It may be motivated by widespread yet amorphous desire to change. Japan has been haunted by a mixture of economic and political malaise, which, until Koizumi's election, consistently filled newspapers with depressing analyses of Tokyo's diminishing status on the world stage.
But much of what economists say must be done to raise Japan's sinking star - banking and fiscal reform, for example - is taking a backseat to issues that are easier to grasp and less painful to face. That may be due to the fact that Koizumi is still biding his time ahead of next month's elections for the Upper House of the Diet, or Japanese parliament, where his ruling Liberal Democratic Party may suffer steep losses.
"Koizumi will not bite the bullet to do radical things before July," says Richard Katz, editor of the Oriental Economist, published in Tokyo.
Instead, he may be looking to solidify his popularity, so that he can then turn to LDP members who resent his leapfrog into office and say: " 'All right, I saved this party, and now you have to do what I say.' "
Mr. Katz doubts that Koizumi will be able to change the system substantially, even after July, because reform will require him to anger too many benefactors in the rigid, established triangle of politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations that rule Japan.
"The obstacles to growth are the pillars of the political system. If they try to do reform, they will tear themselves apart," adds Katz. "I tend to be of the view that the LDP can't do it."
And though there are many pacifists who would oppose a change in the Constitution that swears off war as a tool of foreign policy, broaching the issue may prove far easier than trying to push economic reforms through a gummed-up Japanese bureaucracy.
The idea of Japanese individual and collective self defense is already enshrined in Japan-US security treaties, so it is only the interpretation that needs to change, argues Hisahiko Okazaki, a former ambassador and now director of the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo. "But to change the interpretation of the Constitution, that is revolutionary."
And it is possible, he adds, "because [Koizumi] is capable of a top-down decision," something previous prime ministers were not. "He's independent, so we don't know what he will do. He's not the kind of politician who exposes everything about himself," adds Mr. Okazaki.
Koizumi has roots in a slightly nationalistic LDP faction, but whether that makes him deserving of a "right-wing" label is questionable. Indeed, he may in part be following a tempo set by the new thinking in Washington.
On one hand, Mr. Armitage supports having Japan participate in "collective security" and shouldering a greater portion of the peacekeeping burden in the region.
But signals from the US are mixed. While Armitage has virtually invited Japan to update its defense outlook, other Washington policymakers seem to view such moves with caution. A recent study by the Rand Corp. for the Department of Defense examines whether a Japan that rearms to help contain China will become a formidable US competitor for influence in the long term.
"What is really worrisome is not simply Japan's current military capability,'' the Rand report says. "Japan has both the financial and technical means to transform its military into powerful strategic forces in a relatively short period of time. Absent a US presence, Japan may very well attempt to fill the power vacuum by becoming a major hegemonic contestant in the region."
US officials closely watching Tokyo-Washington relations insist that things are far from troubling. One senior Western diplomat says that Tanaka's English-speaking capability could be an important bridge. "It's much better to have a Japanese foreign minister who can carry messages to China."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher downplayed the perception of tension in the US-Japan relationship due to Tanaka's comments. "We have an excellent relationship with Japan that's based on close consultations between two allies.... I'm sure we'll continue to do that with Japan."
But Japan's ambassador to the US, Shunji Yanai, lashed out at Tanaka for her comments on missile defense. "I have been with the Foreign Ministry for 40 years, and I have never seen a situation more extraordinary than this," Shunji said, according to Japan's Kyodo newswire. "The US wonders what is unfolding in Japan."
Such trans-Atlantic turbulence is in part due to the anti-Tanaka sentiment coursing through Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Career diplomats are resentful of her "take-the-bull-by-the-horns" approach to cleaning up the scandal-ridden bureaucracy, exacerbated by a rather wild ride during her first weeks in office.
But beyond that lie greater questions of what Japan and the rest of the region will look like in decades to come. The security lattice that the US has built around Asia and the Pacific Rim - with an eye toward containing China and buffering unpredictable North Korea - is starting to grow cobwebs. More than a few people would like to see that structure reexamined and reshaped.
But convincing other Japanese that they should even think about it may be difficult.
"People believe that there is a bottle, and if you remove the cap, it will release a monster called military power," says Tadae Takudo, the dean of social sciences at Kyorin University in Tokyo.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor