June 26, 2006

Japan PM Koizumi cements US ties

By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi makes his final visit to the United States this week,
capping five years in which Tokyo boosted ties with Washington
but sowed discord with Japan's neighbors.

The last summit with President George W. Bush for Koizumi,
who will step down in September, comes as talk of a North
Korean long-range missile test underscore the security threats
that have bound the two allies together.

Koizumi took considerable political risks and challenged
taboos in Japan by sending ships to refuel U.S. coalition
vessels in Afghanistan and by sending troops to Iraq in Japan's
most dangerous overseas deployment since World War Two.

Under Koizumi, Tokyo has agreed to integrate military
operations with U.S. forces in Japan, hewed closely to American
positions in complicated nuclear negotiations with North Korea,
and echoed U.S. concerns about the security of Taiwan.

Japan began pulling out its 550 troops from the southern
Iraqi city of Samawa just days before Koizumi is to visit the
United States after a trip to Canada. But he will win kudos for
Japan's help and for reconstruction aid in Iraq.

"The U.S.-Japan alliance strengthened very much in the five
years under the friendship between President Bush and Prime
Minister Koizumi," said a Japanese official in Tokyo.

"Their chemistry is fabulous," said the official.

The two leaders, who will display that chemistry in a visit
to the Memphis, Tennessee home of music legend Elvis Presley,
will discuss Iraq, Iran, China and North Korea among other
issues, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


While Koizumi and Bush see eye-to-eye on the U.S.-led war
on terrorism and big global issues, Japan's ties with China and
South Korea have been in a rough patch during Koizumi's tenure.

Amid animosity dating back to Japan's colonial annexation
of Korea in 1910 and invasion and occupation of large parts of
China between 1931 and 1945, Tokyo's ties with its neighbors
have plunged due to Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni
shrine, where some convicted World War Two war criminals are
honored along with Japan's millions of war dead.

The spats over history have caused the leaders of China and
Japan to shun Koizumi at Asian summits, harming efforts to
maintain a united front at nuclear talks with North Korea.

Some analysts also see risks to the United States in being
so close to a leader who has offended the historical
sensibilities of South Korea, a U.S. ally, and China, with
which Washington is trying to forge a constructive long-term

"There is a danger of seeming to be allied to some of the
most intransigent aspects of Koizumi's policy in relation to
history and Japan's neighbors," said Derek Mitchell, an analyst
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in

The former Pentagon official says Washington needs to tell
Tokyo that the animosity hurts U.S. interests and that the
Japanese "need to think freshly and more strategically about
the connection between history and the future of the alliance."

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer said Bush
"recognizes that the Japanese are trying to figure out how to
honor their war dead without embracing the cause for which they

"The president takes the view that Japan and China have got
to reconcile their differences and it is not particularly
helpful for foreigners to tell them how to do it," he told