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Farewell to Koizumi – what lies ahead?

Updated On: Jul 04, 2006

It was a grand finale to five years of close friendship between the US and Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sang and danced his way around Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion with the visit billed as a “graduation tour” by the Japanese media. "My dream came true," the exuberant Koizumi, an Elvis fan, said as the two wrapped up a 90-minute tour. "Thank you very much for treating me nice. Like Elvis song -- 'treat me nice.'"

Rarely have the agendas world’s only superpower and the world’s second largest economy been so closely aligned in what is now known as the “US-Japan Alliance (Doumei)” in Japan. Most see Japan as a loyal and obedient partner of the US agenda. Observers see that Koizumi's North American tour was essentially symbolic, as he has settled most major bilateral concerns before the trip, mostly to benefit the US, including lifting a ban on US beef imports and approving a US base realignment. This is an increasing characteristic and obligation of the Washington circle of close allies – JapanUK and Australia.

While US-Japan partnership is basking in Graceland, the rest of East Asia, particularly China and South Korea, are wondering about post-Koizumi and the Yasukuni shrine visits.  The leading contender to succeed Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, has recently publicly revealed that he saw the shrine visits as a non-issue. Koizumi has left behind many unresolved issues for his successor. Japan Times bill this as a “Japan still surrounded by troubled waters”. Russian occupied islands, South Korea island disputes, Chinese underwater drilling are some of the main ones.  Japan had just send protests again over China and South Korean survey and tests in the areas near the disputed islands.

But the main irritant is the diplomatic furor over visits to the Yasukuni shrine. Within Japan itself, efforts have been ongoing to keep the anti-Yasukuni momentum going. Yasuo Fukuda, another candidate to succeed Koizumi, has picked up support by publicly criticizing Koizumi's Yasukuni visits. The recent untimely death of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has also served as a rallying point for anti-Yasukuni forces in Japan. Many former prime ministers attended his funeral with Chinese State Councillor making a personal phone call to this new friend of Sino-Japanese rapprochement.

Added to this, a new symbol of anti-Yasukuni-ism has emerged. Opposition party Ichiro Ozawa is preparing to travel to Beijing for the first time in his capacity as the Opposition leader. Through this arranged meeting, the Chinese serves to demonstrate to the Japanese this stark contrast in President Hu's unwillingness to hold formal talks with Koizumi due to the Yasukuni visits. Ozawa is well-known for his political strategies and this time, he seeks triangular diplomacy (Beijing,WashingtonTokyo) in opposition to Koizumi’s bilateral accent (Washington-Tokyo). Ozawa is now deliberating and contemplating the public announcement of this vision at his meeting with President Hu. 

Rounding up Koizumi’s term, while it is fair to say that there is much room for resolution in the field of diplomacy, Koizumi may have made important progress inJapan’s self-interests. Like Canberra and LondonTokyo has derived significant benefits from its relationship with Washington. US has transitionally set up a temporary missile shield around Japan with the deployment of Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) missiles in Okinawa by the year’s end. Nobody else could have given the Japanese their assurance against North Korean Taepodong missiles, especially since the Japanese were so short-handed that they had to abruptly recall a destroyer from exercise to monitor North Korea.

Sources:

Koizumi bids farewell to Bush after five years of solid friendship (Channelnewsasia, 1 July 2006)

Japan still surrounded by troubled waters (Japan Times, 1 July 2006)

Ozawa decides to play the China card (Asahi, 1 July 2006)

Aegis warship to monitor North (Japan Times, 30 June 2006)

No harm in Yasukuni visits, Abe figures (Japan Times, 29 June 2006)

Tokyo-Beijing Forum chance to air issues (Asahi, 28 June 2006)

Koizumi's Visit: Japanese Nationalism vs. Bush's Asia Agenda (TIME, 28 June 2006)

Koizumi, Abe share shrine stance (CNN, 27 June 2006)

U.S. to deploy PAC-3 missiles in Okinawa by yearend: report (People’s Daily, 26 June 2006)