What has been touted as the best Japan-U.S. relationship in the postwar era started with a cowboy movie and will end with an Elvis Presley museum.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is now on a trip to the United States to hold on Thursday what will probably be his last summit with President George W. Bush.

For Koizumi’s last official trip to the U.S., the White House has prepared a Memphis, Tenn., trip to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, as a gesture to underscore his close friendship with Bush and as a present pleasing to Koizumi, a big fan of “the King.”

The Koizumi-Bush relationship has often been described as the best personal ties between the two countries’ top leaders in the postwar decades.

The very first topic Koizumi brought up in their first summit in June 2001 was “High Noon,” a 1952 Western film in which Gary Cooper played the role of a small-town sheriff fighting alone against evil gunslingers.

“High Noon” is Koizumi’s favorite movie, and he knew it was one of Bush’s favorites as well. Koizumi’s casual nature and love of American culture appeared to strike an instant chord with Bush.

That meeting reportedly continued 2 hours and 10 minutes, almost triple the originally scheduled 45 minutes.

“We hit it off by talking about that movie,” Koizumi would write two years later in his biweekly newsletter.

Later, in another meeting, Koizumi surprised Bush and then Secretary of State Colin Powell by suddenly belting out the Elvis song “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” to describe the Japan-U.S. relationship.

Government sources in Tokyo say the two leaders’ close friendship has defused tension between the world’s two largest economies numerous times over the past five years.

“Bush has often told his staff that they should not put Koizumi in a difficult position,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official, asking not to be named.

“If we had not had the Koizumi-Bush relationship, the U.S. may have put more pressure on Japan to send troops to Iraq earlier. They may have implemented sanctions over the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) issue.”

For Japan, maintaining good relations with the U.S is the No. 1 priority in diplomacy, particularly after the sour experiences of the fierce trade wars in the 1980s.

In that sense, Koizumi is arguably the most successful Japanese leader in recent years. Thanks to his close ties with Bush, the U.S. has often eased off the pressure over conflicting issues, officials in Tokyo said.

“After Koizumi came into office, Japan-U.S. ties have been supported by a very strong relationship of trust at the highest level,” Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi said at news conference Monday.

The friendship, of course, is not without cost. Koizumi has fully supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq, sending troops there on a postwar reconstruction mission, and enacted a number of controversial laws to strengthen the military component of the alliance to deal with emergencies.

All of these military-related matters are extremely sensitive politically in Japan, where antimilitary sentiment is still strong due to the bitter experience of the war and the pacifist Constitution.

“Koizumi has been a guy with a lot of luck,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of the biweekly political magazine Insideline, pointing out that no Japanese soldiers have been killed or wounded by insurgents in Iraq.

Observers say the Koizumi administration could have suffered a fatal blow if any of the Ground Self-Defense Force contingent in Iraq had suffered casualties, as the nation has been split over Koizumi’s decision to support the Iraq war to the fullest and dispatch troops there.

For Foreign Ministry bureaucrats who traditionally center their diplomacy on the U.S. and hope for stronger Japanese military cooperation, Koizumi has been a decisive leader.

“Now the U.S. views Japan differently, as a country that can take risks. I think Prime Minister Koizumi’s political decision to support the Iraq war has contributed greatly,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

But many observers have criticized Koizumi for failing to create his own strategies for Asia and the Middle East and instead merely following and supporting U.S. diplomacy.

“All of his diplomatic polices have been based on only one point — cooperation with the U.S.,” said Jitsuro Terashima, honorary chairman of the nonprofit Japan Research Institute.

Terashima faults Koizumi for failing to present Japan as an independent leader to Asia and the Middle East.

“(Koizumi’s diplomacy) is too simple and narrow-minded to open up a new vista of how Japan should conduct long-term diplomacy,” he said.

Koizumi has pledged to step down as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and thus prime minister in September.

Whoever succeeds him, Japan’s basic diplomatic policy toward the U.S will remain unchanged, though such a close personal relationship between the leaders of the two countries is unlikely.

“The summit this time will confirm the role and meaning of the Japan-U.S. relationship, and (the two leaders) will agree that the bilateral relationship will develop further, based on the (past) achievements” Vice Foreign Minister Yachi said.

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