U.S.-Japan Relationship Questioned as Koizumi Exits

President Bush hopes to strengthen already close ties with Japan in meetings with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi is on a farewell tour as he prepares to step down in September. Some Japanese fear the U.S.-Japan relationship has become too close.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Susan Stamberg.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush meets today with Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who's on a farewell tour. The Japanese leader is famous for his silver mane and shared birthday with Elvis Presley.

So tomorrow, the president is taking Koizumi to Graceland, Elvis' estate in Memphis. We're not making this up. It's a sign of just how close U.S.-Japanese ties have become. But in Japan, some fear the relationship is too close, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

Prime Minister JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Japan): (Unintelligible) present for me. Jacket.

LOUISA LIM reporting:

At their first meeting at Camp David five years ago, gifts were exchanged, with Junichiro Koizumi receiving a jacket and a baseball mitt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: Then, to laughter, they threw around a baseball.

Behind closed doors, the Japanese Prime Minister had compared President Bush to Gary Cooper in High Noon. This was the start of a legendary personal chemistry, and a diplomatic romance that swept away Junichiro Koizumi.

Mr. CHINEYO WATANABE(ph) (Mitsui Research Institute, Japan): He created a very close relation with President Bush, personally. That's actually his power source.

LIM: Chineyo Watanabe, from Mitsui Research Institute. He says the personal relationship has been parlayed into ever-closer security ties, made closer still by North Korea's brinksmanship.

Mr. WATANABE: Koizumi is very wise to say without cooperating with the United States, Japan cannot survive or handle this issue. That was a very wise explanation for why Japan is sending troops to Iraq.

LIM: The troop dispatch pleased President Bush. But surveys indicated up to 70 percent of Japanese opposed it, even though the troops serve in a humanitarian capacity only. Their withdrawal was announced just days ago.

One outspoken opponent to the deployment was Mizuho Fukushima, the head of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Ms. MIZUHO FUKUSHIMA (Chair, Social Democratic Party, Japan): (Through translator) I sometimes think Japan is the 51st state in the union. Koizumi's attitude is just to obey the U.S. To show his friendship, he sent troops to Iraq even though it is against our pacifist constitution.

LIM: The constitution, imposed by the U.S. after World War II, commits Japan only to self-defense forces, not an offensive military.

Koizumi's close ties to the Bush administration have been ridiculed both by Japanese liberals and by those in the conservative camp, like commentator Hedaia Akakazi(ph).

Mr. HEDAIA AKAKAZI (Japanese Political Commentator): Americans have one poodle in the Atlantic Ocean and one poodle in the Pacific Ocean. That's Blair and Koizumi.

LIM: And some argue that Tokyo has paid dearly for the alliance. Japan is shelling out $7 billion for the relocation of American troops from Okinawa to Guam. It's a bill that could go up to $30 billion.

And Noriko Hama, from Doshisha University, says there's a perception of growing political interference too.

Professor NORIKO HAMA (Professor of Management, Doshisha University): There is a feeling that the American side is pushing the Japanese side into, indeed, rethinking the constitution. There is clearly reinforcing the U.S.-Japan military relationship, wanting us to do more in this particular region. I think this is an issue which is worrying the Japanese public to a great extent.

LIM: Another issue that's raised public concern is Tokyo's deteriorating ties with the rest of Asia. Politician Mizuho Fukushima again.

Ms. FUKUSHIMA: (Through translator) Another mistake is that Koizumi concentrated on the relationship with the U.S., ignoring the Asian countries. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, destroying good relations with our Asian neighbors.

LIM: The continued visits to the shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including war criminals, have helped push Japan's relations with China and South Korea to their lowest point in decades.

George Bush has remained silent on Koizumi's visits to the shrine, and White House officials say the president will sidestep the issue this time. Indeed, the centerpiece of this trip will be elsewhere.

(Soundbite of song “Graceland”)

Mr. PAUL SIMON (Musician): I'm going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee…

Japan's number one Elvis fan will be whisked off to Graceland onboard Air Force One, with President Bush at his side. But Noriko Hama, for one, isn't impressed.

Professor HAMA: It's obviously going to be about Koizumi going to Elvis Presley's shrine rather than Yasukuni. This is all for show, and I think both sides will be very careful not to step beyond it being a show of a U.S.-Japan alliance being never better.

Prime Minister KOIZUMI: (Singing) Hold me close, hold me tight, make me thrill with delight...

LIM: The Japanese leader, demonstrating how he serenaded George Bush on his 59th birthday.

Prime Minister KOIZUMI: (Singing) I want you, I need you...

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician): (Singing) I-I-I love you with all my he-he-he-he-he-he-heart.

LIM: This song could be the soundtrack to their relationship. But with Koizumi leaving office in September, bilateral ties could get all shook up. The question is, whether the love me tender mood can survive Japan's domestic politics and a change in personalities. Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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