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Bilateral relations between Japan and the United States during the four years Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been in office have often been characterized as a “honeymoon.”

Koizumi was one of the first leaders to give President George W. Bush his all-out support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq and sent the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq on a humanitarian mission.

But Japan’s relationships with its East Asian neighbors, however, namely China and South Korea, are at their worst in decades due to the uproar over history textbooks that critics say gloss over its wartime aggression and the prime minister’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals.

On Saturday, Koizumi met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Jakarta with the hope of mending damaged ties. Both leaders emerged from the talks saying the bilateral relationship is important for both countries.

While Hu urged Koizumi to reflect on history and said Japan’s apologies need to be backed by action, he did not explicitly demand that the Yasukuni visits stop.

Koizumi, for his part, called on Beijing to deal appropriately with the anti-Japan demonstrations but did not ask for an apology or compensation for the recent damage to Japan’s diplomatic offices or Japanese businesses in China.

“Never before has there been a time in which (Japan and China) deepened their mutual dependency and expanded human exchanges,” the prime minister told reporters Monday. “We need to overcome our antagonism and take a broad view of things so that we can cooperate to push our friendship forward.”

But because the most visible root of the problem — Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits — remains unresolved, Foreign Ministry officials are pessimistic, saying that ties between the two nations will likely remain strained until Koizumi’s tenure ends in September 2006.

After his meeting with Hu, Koizumi told a news conference he will make an “appropriate decision” on any future visit to the shrine.

“The Foreign Ministry will prepare for the worst-case scenario” of another Yasukuni visit when formulating its China policy, said a top ministry official who asked not to be named.

Indeed, top government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda has all but abandoned his role of explaining the government’s position on the prime minister’s repeated shrine visits.

“Please ask the prime minister, not me,” the chief Cabinet secretary told a news conference April 13.

But critics — many of whom say Koizumi uses diplomacy primarily as a tool to reinforce his support base at home — argue that even if the Yasukuni visits continue, other measures can be taken to minimize the damage to Japan’s ties with China and South Korea.

Toshikazu Inoue, a professor of international relations at Gakushuin University, criticized Koizumi for effectively ignoring a December 2002 report compiled by a private advisory panel to then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

The panel proposed building a national, secular and permanent memorial to coexist with Yasukuni. But it was met with opposition from some members of Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and from the Japanese Association for the Bereaved Families of War Dead, who say such a facility would undermine Yasukuni’s significance.

Inoue also said the government should abandon its textbook screening process and allow individual schools to decide which textbooks to use without official involvement.

Under the current system, an education ministry council gives its stamp of approval to textbook-screening results provided by ministry officials, which has raised criticism from China and South Korea that Tokyo tacitly approves any controversial contents.

Japan’s wartime aggression is still fresh in the memories of China and South Korea, but Koizumi has not done enough to convince the two countries that Japan’s militaristic days are over, pundits say.

China and South Korea are wary of Japan’s military “ambitions” following its dispatch of the SDF to the Indian Ocean and Iraq as part of the U.S.-led war on terror, according to Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of political science at Keio University.

“When he decided to go along with (the policies of) the U.S., he also needed to think about how to deal with Asia,” Soeya said.

If things do not change, Koizumi risks wasting six decades of efforts his predecessors and diplomats have made to build ties with Asia, he added.

While it is true that Tokyo’s diplomatic options are limited due to its war-renouncing Constitution and its heavy dependence on the Japanese-U.S. security alliance, Koizumi has been criticized for devoting too much of his energy on pleasing Washington.

Some critics say Tokyo has given more than it has received.

“Japan did a favor for the U.S. by supporting the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan and the war on Iraq despite domestic opposition,” Gakushuin University’s Inoue said.

In return, Koizumi could have demanded that Washington give more support for Tokyo’s diplomatic agenda, he argued, calling the prime minister’s diplomatic tactics “naive.”

One item high on Japan’s diplomatic wish list is gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Campaigning for this goal has been especially fierce under Koizumi, but it has drawn fire from China and South Korea, which say Japan has not sufficiently atoned for its past misdeeds.

However, the U.S. has voiced reluctance to increase the number of permanent membership seats, apparently out of fears that its influence in the international body would diminish.

Foreign Ministry officials are concerned that Washington’s position might throw a wrench into plans to reach an agreement on U.N. reform by September, when leaders of the member states gather in New York.

Japan’s attempt to seek diplomatic ties with North Korea is another case in point.

After Koizumi’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002, many media reports said the two nations were likely to normalize ties as early as by the end of that year.

But such optimism quickly faded after Washington revealed in October that Pyongyang had admitted to nuclear weapons development. Some observers have suggested that move was intended in part to stop Japan from normalizing ties with North Korea, since the U.S. would lose a valuable ally should the two Asian nations close ranks.

At present, bilateral talks between Japan and North Korea are on ice, not only because of the nuclear issue but also due to Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens.

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