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.
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.
Yet he leaves a political climate that has moved so far to the right that the leading successor in the party is Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather was a Cabinet member during World War II and who belongs to a new breed of unapologetic patriots who have openly described China as a "threat."
In recent months, the jockeying has taken an unexpected turn, however. Moderate candidate Yasuo Fukuda is making a run, at least in LDP party circle discussions.
Citing a need for better relations with huge trading partner China, business leaders as well support Mr. Fukuda, a former cabinet secretary. In a recent survey of 31 business leaders, 15 opted for Fukuda, while 12 gave Abe the nod.
Yet Abe is again picking up in popular polls, helped by an unlikely source. By placing a Taepodong 2 long-range missile in launch position in North Korea, Kim Jong Il has created worry in Japan – which parlays into national security fears and a boost for Abe.
"Kim launched the first Taepodong over Japan in 1998," notes a Western diplomat. "That resulted in the beginning of missile defense and the first close military alliance between Japan and the US. Now his second missile is moving to elect Abe. Kim is aiding the Japanese right-wing. How ironic is that?"
US officials regard Tokyo as their most reliable ally in the Pacific. Yet such status requires maintenance, they say, and careful attention to how the relationship plays with other partners.
South Korean diplomats have felt dismay, if not betrayal, for example, at what appears to be US neutrality on Japan's recent claims over the Dokdo islands off Korea. This spring, Korean and Japanese naval vessels came close to a standoff over Dokdo, which Japan calls Takeshima. Seoul has long felt that the US regarded Dokdo as Korean.
Last week, President Roh weighed Seoul's military ability against Japan's, telling coast guard officers that, "It is true Japan is superior in military power, but we have enough military capability to deter Japan's provocations."
As Koizumi arrives in the US, he is bringing the welcome message that Japan has agreed to lift its ban on US beef imports, put in place five months ago over concerns about mad cow disease. The ban came just a month after a previous two-year ban had been lifted. The issue has caused anger in Congress, puzzlement in ranch states, and frustration at the US Embassy over what have been viewed as subjective claims by Japan regarding US regulation of its beef exports.
Then there are new US concerns about Japan's revisionism regarding its history with the US. The Yushukan museum, on the grounds of Yasukuni shrine, suggests that the US, not Japan, was responsible for World War II.
"We have our own history issues with Japan," says Mr. Vogel of Harvard. "The fiction that we forced Japan into World War II, things like that, are getting stronger. It is not in Japan's interest to promote these views, and we need to get a fuller discussion about history. We can be balanced and even-handed, and not one-sided, in Asia."