Never a dull moment when U.S. presidents come calling


U.S. President Barack Obama will make his first Japan visit Friday and exchange views with the new Democratic Party of Japan administration of Yukio Hatoyama on global concerns.

During his two-day stay in Tokyo, Obama is expected to touch on complex bilateral negotiations, ranging from the relocation of the Futenma air base to how the two countries can work together to fight climate change.

Yet looking back, past presidential visits have routinely caused a national stir even when thorny issues weren’t on the horizon.

Following are questions and answers regarding U.S. presidential visits:

Who was the first U.S. president to visit Japan?

Ulysses S. Grant came in June 1879, two years after leaving the White House. In addition to meeting Emperor Meiji, Grant planted a Himalayan cedar at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo.

But a visit by a sitting president took nearly a century after Grant’s trip.

Dwight Eisenhower had planned to visit Tokyo in June 1960, but before his arrival Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi tried to ram the newly revised Japan-U.S. security treaty through the Diet. This set in motion antigovernment demonstrations around Tokyo, leading Kishi to cancel the president’s visit at the last minute due to security concerns. Ike was all but set to depart from Manila to Japan when his tour was called off.

President Richard Nixon was also scheduled to visit Japan, but before he could come the Watergate scandal broke and he eventually resigned from office.

The first sitting president to visit Japan was Gerald Ford, who arrived in Tokyo in November 1974 and met with Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Their summit featured a theme still relevant today — cutting back on energy spending — because of the oil crisis.

Ronald Reagan in 1983 became the first American president to address the Diet, where he expressed determination to reduce the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals.

Where do U.S. presidents stay when they’re in Japan?

Many, including Ford, have stayed at the state guesthouse in Akasaka while in Tokyo. Those who travel to other parts of the country sometimes use hotels. Ford lodged at the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.

During his visit in 1979 to attend the Group of Seven summit in Tokyo, President Jimmy Carter chose to stay at the ambassador’s residence on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Akasaka. Carter was seen jogging on the grounds in the morning and taking a dip in the embassy pool. Approximately 400 of his accompanying staff, including pilots, Cabinet secretaries and assistants, were crammed in the nearby Hotel Okura annex the U.S. government reserved exclusively for the stay.

Costs for accommodations that Japan pays vary depending on the length of the visit. But a three-night stay by a state guest at the government guesthouse and providing a dozen cars for transportation reportedly costs about ¥30 million.

How do presidents travel within Japan?

Presidents often say they felt at home while in Japan, but that may mean more than just Tokyo’s hospitality. For example, after arriving aboard Air Force One, three U.S. helicopters awaited Commander in Chief Ford.

During his visit in 1983, Reagan boarded the chopper Marine One with first lady Nancy when traveling to Hinode in western Tokyo. He was greeted there by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who performed the tea ceremony at his 2.5-hectare cottage.

What is the security situation for visiting presidents?

Security provided by police is tight. When Ford arrived in Tokyo, some 25,000 officers were mobilized to seal off Haneda airport and block access to the major thoroughfares en route to the government guesthouse.

Carter’s arrival saw 26,000 officers providing security for the president and his team, but critics called this overkill. Mike Mansfield, who was the U.S. ambassador at the time, filed a protest with the metropolitan police, saying restrictions placed on the U.S. press corps were too tight.

Coinciding with ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of the Emperor’s reign, the police presence in Tokyo during Obama’s visit is expected to be enormous.

Media reports have said some 16,000 officers will be patrolling the streets and manning roadblocks to inspect vehicles. Hot spots that will see tightened security include the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Yokota Air Base, Narita airport and the prime minister’s office.

But the workload often takes a toll on those providing security. The Tokyo District Court last month ruled in favor of a former police officer who claimed his cerebral hemorrhage was caused by stress during his duty during former President George W. Bush’s 2002 visit to Tokyo.

The court said the officer fell ill after surveying the highway prior to Bush’s arrival. Records revealed his overtime reached 47 hours during the week leading to his internal bleeding, and the judge acknowledged the workload triggered excessive mental and physical stress.

Meanwhile, details of the president’s security or the number of agents that accompany him are usually kept confidential. It was reported that Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy, were protected by about 100 members of the Secret Service while staying at the embassy in 1979. Media reports said 600 security agents were dispatched to China when George W. Bush attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Secret Service agents are allowed to carry their weapons when entering and on duty in Japan.

What do presidents do in their time off?

Obama may find it hard to tour the city during his short stay, but presidents often hit the city after work to experience what Japan has to offer. Carter and his family took in a kabuki show and dined at a yakitori restaurant in Roppongi.

George H.W. Bush made time for a tennis match against Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito in 1992. Bush, who paired with former U.S. Ambassador Michael Armacost, lost the two-set match 6-3, 6-3.

Have there been any emergencies?

On Jan. 8, 1992, President George H.W. Bush fell ill while attending a dinner reception with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and threw up.

A U.S. Air Force ambulance was immediately summoned and Bush was diagnosed with gastric flu. He canceled the next morning’s engagements but returned for later duties.

Although a visit to a Tokyo hospital was arranged, the president ended up being examined by an accompanying White House physician.

Such also was the case when Rosalynn Carter fell ill soon after arriving in Japan with the president in 1979. Instead of visiting a hospital, a White House physician took care of the first lady.

Has there been any friction during U.S.-Japan summits in Tokyo?

Obama’s visit will likely see the contentious Futenma base relocation hold center stage.

Bilateral talks in the 1980s and ’90s were all about easing economic friction. Reagan asked Nakasone to coordinate on monetary policy to rectify the exchange rate imbalance, while George H.W. Bush pushed Miyazawa to accept attaching a tariff on imported rice.

But the strongest friction occurred the time a bilateral summit didn’t take place.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton miffed Tokyo when he visited China for nine days but neglected to swing by Japan. The incident, which triggered the term “Japan passing,” spread concern that the Democratic Party places more importance on China than Japan.