By Philippa Fogarty
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sets off on Monday for a four-day visit to Central Asia.
The Japanese government is seeking Central Asian resources
Mr Koizumi will hold talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the two are expected to issue a joint statement.
He then goes to Uzbekistan to meet President Islam Karimov, a leader whom the West have criticised over human rights.
The visit is the first to Central Asia by a Japanese prime minister, and comes amid efforts in Tokyo to build stronger ties with the resource-rich region, especially as Chinese and Russian influence there have also increased.
Japan began to look to Central Asian nations soon after they achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Tokyo became a major aid donor to the region.
In 2004, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi initiated the "Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue", holding a round of talks on economic and security ties.
But it was in June this year that the extent of Tokyo's interest became clear.
"A new atmosphere is emerging in which it is simply impossible to ignore Japan when you discuss Central Asia," Foreign Minister Taro Aso said in a speech outlining so-called Silk Road diplomacy.
China and Russia are also courting Central Asia's leaders
Japan was committed to a role in the independent development of the region, he said, and would not allow Central Asia to be "tossed about by, or forced to submit to, the interests of outside countries".
Days later, Mr Aso hosted counterparts from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at the second meeting of Japan's dialogue group.
But the talks were overshadowed by the high-profile meeting of the China and Russia-dominated Central Asian security grouping, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
The rapid evolution of the SCO has not escaped Tokyo.
"Japan has been a steady player in the region and has always had an interest in the SCO developing on its doorstep," said Col Christopher Langton of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
"In the game of regional politics, Japan feels it has a role to play in helping offset growing Russian and Chinese influence."
There are a number of reasons for a visit now.
Japan has been looking to up its influence on the international stage, and is seeking support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
It also believes political stability in Central Asia is vital, and wants to support its development.
But the driving force behind Tokyo's heightened interest is natural resources.
Kazakhstan has a great deal of oil, and is rapidly expanding production. It also has natural gas reserves, as do Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the world's second largest deposits of uranium.
Japan, which depends on imports of oil and gas, is seeking to reduce its reliance on oil from the Middle East.
Tokyo wants to diversify both in terms of what it buys and where it buys it from. It also wants to up its use of nuclear energy - for which it must import uranium.
"Without a doubt, Japan sees an opportunity for imaginative, entrepreneurial activity in the general area of energy," said Col Langton.
One such opportunity is the "southern route" - an ambitious Japanese plan for a pipeline to run from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean via Afghanistan and Pakistan, avoiding China and Russia.
But China is also looking to secure supplies from the region to meet its soaring energy needs.
China is also looking to Central Asia for resources
Last year Chinese state oil company CNPC bought Canada-based PetroKazakhstan. In December, a 1,000km-long (620 mile) pipeline began supplying Kazakh oil to western China. Beijing has also recently signed a gas deal with Turkmenistan.
Fear of missing out on energy resources to China is a major factor in Japan's diplomatic outreach.
"We are all worried about China's crazy use of energy and lack of energy efficiency," said Haruo Shimada, professor of economics at Japan's Keio University.
Closer Japanese engagement with the region is unlikely to please China, but it could suit the US, which has seen its influence there eroded in recent years.
Washington's relationship with Uzbekistan broke down last year over the issue of human rights.
Then in June 2005, the SCO issued a statement calling on the US to give up its Central Asian military bases, a sign perhaps that regional governments found Chinese and Russian attitudes to issues such as human rights and democratisation easier to work with.
While such a high-level visit as Mr Koizumi's may raise some eyebrows - the EU still has sanctions in place against the Uzbek government because of human rights - it comes amid some signs the US is looking to rebuild ties.
"I think Japan would not have done this if it were going to get a negative reaction from the US," Col Langton said.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said that human rights and democratisation would be touched on during the visit. But with so much competition for alliance with Central Asia's leaders, it is hard to envisage Japan taking a particularly tough line.
"Japan's interest in the region is purely pragmatic," says Hugh Barnes of the Foreign Policy Centre. "It will very happily look the other way when it comes to human rights."