By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
The first time they met late last year in Hanoi, the new Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, presented President Bush with a photograph of their respective grandfathers playing golf with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.
It was a gesture intended to remind the American president of the conservative political lineage from which both leaders sprang -- Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, also a Japanese prime minister, and Bush's was former Connecticut senator Prescott S. Bush. It was also Abe's stab at starting to try to build the kind of relationship his more flamboyant predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, famously enjoyed with the president. Bush and Koizumi, a huge Elvis Presley fan, marked the end of their professional relationship with a joint tour of Graceland, Presley's home, last summer.
Building that kind of bonhomie will be a tall order, but as Abe arrived at the White House last night for the first of two days of talks with Bush, creating personal chemistry seemed as high on the agenda for the summit as tackling North Korea's nuclear program or solving the beef dispute between the two countries. There was no fancy state dinner, only a small gathering in the White House that included golfing great Ben Crenshaw, a close Bush friend.
Today, Bush will welcome Abe to Camp David, a setting generally reserved for his most important visits with foreign leaders. Dennis Wilder, the top Asia expert on the National Security Council, said the meetings are designed in part to allow the two leaders "to develop their personal relationship further."
While often overshadowed by U.S. relations with Britain, China and Russia, the relationship with Japan has been carefully tended by the Bush administration, which is well aware that it has had few stronger allies on the international stage in recent years. Koizumi was a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, although Japan ended its deployment of troops last year. Abe has proposed extending an air mission bringing supplies to Iraq.
But recent months have brought frictions, largely over the recent six-party agreement to shut down North Korea's nuclear program. Japan has sought a harder line on North Korea than the Bush administration and is anxious that Washington not take Pyongyang off its list of state sponsors of terror until it resolves the emotional issues of Japanese abductees in North Korea.
Michael J. Green, a former senior White House aide and expert on Japan, said Japanese of all ideologies "are resentful of the shift in U.S. policy towards North Korea. Their basic complaint is that we have gone soft and we are making it too easy for the North Koreans to keep their nuclear weapons." Abe, he added, wants to come out of the summit showing "we are still very much on the same page on North Korea."
Possibly even more sensitive is the issue of sex slaves during World War II, known euphemistically as "comfort women." Abe alarmed many in the international community in March with comments that denied a direct role by the Japanese military in forcing women to work in brothels throughout Asia. The comment roiled Japan's neighbors, who saw it as an example of Japan failing to come to grips with its wartime past. It also complicated Japan's efforts to portray itself as a victim in the long-running controversy over North Korea's seizure of Japanese citizens.
Japanese officials have said Abe believes his comments have been misunderstood and that he stands by a 1993 Japanese government apology that acknowledged the government's role in the brothels. They said that Abe brought up the issue in an April 3 phone conversation with Bush and emphasized that he sympathized with the victims. They said Bush thanked the prime minister for his candor and quoted him as saying: "I believe in you, Mr. Prime Minister -- and I believe in the Japanese people in their sympathy to the comfort women."
Meeting with congressional leaders yesterday before his dinner with Bush, Abe "expressed regret that his comments were not as he intended for them to be and expressed great sympathy with people who had been placed in that kind of situation," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters.
Although Amnesty International this week called on Bush to raise the issue with Abe, those kinds of statements may have settled the issue as far as the White House is concerned. "The president believes that Prime Minister Abe has done a lot to clear up the misunderstandings in the last couple of weeks on this issue," Wilder said Wednesday. "I don't think this is going to be a major issue of the visit because the two have discussed these issues in depth."