By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
TOKYO -- It is not often that the Queen of England is upstaged. But at a royal gala for world leaders in Scotland last year, even Her Majesty gave up the spotlight when the curtain raised on The George and Junichiro Show.
President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, officials here recalled, shook things up in Gleneagles that night with a dose of The King -- Elvis. Displaying the personal friendship that has helped bring the United States and Japan closer than at any point since the end of World War II, Koizumi serenaded an appreciative Bush -- then celebrating his 59th birthday -- with a verse from "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You."
Now, it is Bush's turn to show Koizumi the love.
In one of his most personal gestures to a visiting world leader, Bush will accompany the prime minister to Memphis on Friday for a private tour of Graceland -- the estate of Koizumi's boyhood idol, Elvis Presley. The trip will come after the freewheeling Japanese leader, known by the nickname "Lion Heart," arrives in Washington on Wednesday for his last official trip to the United States. He will step down in September, after five years as prime minister.
The White House sayonara marks a fitting end to the unlikely relationship of the samurai and the cowboy, of two strong-willed leaders who shared no common tongue but many of the same characteristics -- including a firm conviction in their own opinions and a deep reluctance to admit mistakes.
"It's pretty unusual; it's the first time this president has taken anybody to Graceland," said the U.S. ambassador to Japan, J. Thomas Schieffer, a longtime friend of Bush. He later added, "I think the president wants to convey to Prime Minister Koizumi his gratitude for the friendship he has offered him over this five-year period. This really is a big deal."
Officials on both sides of the Pacific are calling the warm reception a case study of how a personal rapport between world leaders can, on occasion, influence foreign policy. Ties between the United States and Japan -- including coordination on intelligence, defense and diplomacy -- have strengthened even as Washington's relations with Europe at times have sharply deteriorated.
The United States has been particularly appreciative of Japan's increasing assertiveness under Koizumi. The U.S.-Japan alliance is viewed today as a pivotal counterweight to China's growing regional might. The Japanese government also has taken a hard line against North Korea, pushing forward with a joint missile-defense shield with the United States and threatening tough sanctions should Pyongyang test-launch a new intercontinental ballistic missile. But the U.S.-Japan alliance is increasingly seen in global terms as well.
Koizumi pushed the boundaries of Japan's pacifist constitution by dispatching the Ground Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for a noncombat mission. Although Tokyo's largest military-related effort since 1945 is set to wind down operations over the next two months, the prime minister vowed last week to extend and expand Japan's military transport flights between Kuwait and Iraq for the U.S.-led forces. Bush and Koizumi are also set to reaffirm the major realignment of U.S. troops in Japan, an effort that will put both countries in closer military cooperation than ever before as the Japanese air defense command relocates to the U.S. air base at Yokota, south of Tokyo.
At the same time, Bush has remained silent on voracious criticism of Koizumi by China and South Korea -- both have called the Japanese leader an unrepentant militarist for staging visits to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japan's military dead, including World War II criminals. In six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, Washington has also backed Japan's insistence that the fates of its citizens abducted by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 1980s be resolved in the same forum, despite the objections of every other nation at the table.
Some experts have argued that Washington is alienating the rest of Asia -- particularly South Korea -- by siding so blatantly with the Japanese. But it is a risk the Bush administration appears willing to take -- in part because of Koizumi.
Although some in Japan began to openly question the relevance of the U.S.-Japan alliance after the Cold War, Koizumi made the unequivocal decision to remain firmly in Washington's camp. That, aides say, was based on calculations of common threats -- particularly the rapid rise of China, which has become deeply troubling to the Japanese.
"Japan feels alone in Asia," said Yukio Okamoto, Koizumi's former diplomatic adviser. "China is commanding the political hegemony of the continent, and our neighbors are constantly on a tirade against Japan. It is only the mighty nation on the other side of the Pacific that are friends to the Japanese. Koizumi recognized this more than anyone else."
Based in part on pragmatism, the Bush-Koizumi relationship is also a personal one. At Camp David, during their first meeting in June 2001, the Japanese leader famously took in Bush's casual cowboy boots and Western belt buckle before pointing to the president and blurting out the name of Koizumi's favorite movie -- "High Noon." Later in the day, the two were out on the grounds with baseball gloves, playing catch.
"Koizumi understood that Bush was a cowboy," said Takao Toshikawa, editor of Tokyo Insideline. "And Koizumi was a man who loved 'High Noon.' There's no question the two had chemistry."
Over the years, Koizumi was invited to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., where former aides say the pair chatted poolside for hours with a single interpreter. Later, Koizumi -- who shares a birth date with Presley -- belted out more Elvis tunes.
On one trip to Japan, Bush took Koizumi a pair of initialed cowboy boots. Koizumi, for his part, publicly said he would not see Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" because it was "politically biased."
Although exceedingly different -- Koizumi is a 64-year-old divorc? who enjoys Kabuki theater and European operas -- the pair, analysts say, shared some similar traits. Koizumi is known to demand short, concise briefings, eschewing the lengthy bureaucratic updates typically endured by Japanese prime ministers. In a country long ruled by the politics of consensus, Koizumi is considered almost shockingly dismissive of opposing views.
The jostling to replace Koizumi is already on. The front-runners are Koizumi's hawkish chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, and the somewhat more dovish Yasuo Fukuda, a predecessor of Abe's. But neither has Koizumi's standout personality.
"Leaders make a difference, and the proof of that is Koizumi," said Schieffer, referring to the broad political and economic reforms Koizumi pushed through while in office. "He made a difference. Will someone else want to continue that same direction? We'll see, but I think that you cannot make the argument that Koizumi didn't make a difference."