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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 November 2007, 10:57 GMT
Past echoes in Japan-US summit
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Yasuo Fukuda (file image)
The Japanese prime minister is making his first visit to Washington
Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will arrive at the White House for his meeting with President Bush 30 years after his father, also prime minister, took part in a similar summit.

In March 1977, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda met President Carter at a time when there was a huge trade imbalance in Japan's favour.

The US economy was stagnating. Disgruntled workers were attacking Toyota cars and other Japanese imports.

Today, as the US ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer likes to point out, Toyota employs more Americans than American companies like Texas Instruments or Cisco Systems.

"You don't have the antipathy towards the Japanese that you might have had in the 70s and 80s," he says, adding that opinion polls in Japan show consistently that Americans are their "favourite foreigners".

The US protects Japan - a treaty obligation guarantees that it will defend it in the event of an attack.

In return it gets bases in Asia where tens of thousands of troops are stationed, the majority of them on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

And their two economies are integrated much more closely than they were 30 years ago - so much so that the problems in the sub-prime mortgage sector and the repercussions on Wall Street have had a serious knock-on effect on the Nikkei index of leading shares, and damaged the share prices and the reputations of some of the country's biggest banks.

So, as current Prime Minister Fukuda sits down for talks with President Bush, what are the issues at stake?

Afghan mission

No doubt we will hear much about the importance and continued strength of the Japan-US security alliance - partly because it is true, partly because there is perhaps a greater need for reassurance now than there has been in the past.

A Japanese supply ship refuels a Pakistani destroyer, Sept 2007
Japan withdrew its ships from the Indian Ocean last month

Mr Fukuda's difficulties at home recently led to Japan abandoning its naval refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean after six years.

The prime minister could not persuade parliament to authorise the mission for another year.

"Embarrassing" and "regrettable" are the words used by the press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, Mitsuo Sakaba, to describe the situation.

"We are sure that this operation contributed a lot to the efforts by allied forces to control the movement of terrorists in the Indian Ocean and to prevent arms-smuggling," he says.

"We want to keep short this period of embarrassment for all parties concerned so that we can resume again effective operations there."

Mr Schieffer says Washington accepts that it has to allow the Japanese political process to find a solution to the problem.

He argues that the Americans regard the difficulty as "separate and apart" from Japan's relationship with the US.

Areas of tension

A more tricky issue for the president and the prime minister to resolve may be Japan's concern over reported plans to remove North Korea from the US list of terrorist states, as part of the progress towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Noriko Hama
We have politicians who cannot resist grovelling when they meet up with their American partners and I think Japanese people are starting to be irritated
Noriko Hama,
Doshisha University

The problem is two-fold. Firstly, many in Japan still regard North Korea as a real threat to the country's security.

Secondly, they argue that such a significant concession should not be made until the authorities in Pyongyang provide more information about the fate of Japanese citizens and other foreign nationals who are still missing after being abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says most Americans do not understand how sensitive the abduction issue is in Japan.

Mr Fukuda is less dogmatic about it than his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, he says, but believes the prime minister "can't be seen to be backing away from Japan's original position".

"Bush has to cut him a little slack on this. I think Prime Minister Fukuda will use the summit to try to explain to the president his political dilemma and try to get some help on this."

There are other issues too that put this "special relationship" under strain at the moment.

Washington's decision not to sell the advanced F-22 aircraft to Japan is highlighted by some as evidence that the US does not "trust" Tokyo.

Others suggest that US efforts to enlist China to "co-manage" Asia with the Japanese has upset those in Tokyo who fear that they are being taken for granted.

And there are still grumbles about the way the US is proceeding with the "realignment" of the US bases in Japan, which have long been a source of frustration for those living near them.


Professor Noriko Hama from Doshisha University says there are many in Japan who would like the prime minister to use the summit to reassert Japan's position in the alliance.

"We have politicians who cannot resist grovelling when they meet up with their American partners and I think Japanese people are starting to be irritated," she says.

Takeo Fukuda (l) and son Yasuo Fukuda play Go in Hakone in the 1970s
Takeo Fukuda (L) visited the US as PM 30 years before his son (R)

"It is not that they have anything against the Americans as such," she says. "I think what the Japanese want to see is a more intelligent set of people willing to speak their minds towards their best friends in the world."

A look at the joint-communique issued in Washington after the visit of the elder Prime Minister Fukuda in March 1977 shows that many of the issues that his son will try to resolve with President Bush have been around for some time.

The document from the Carter White House notes "the importance of taking further steps to conserve energy" and "the continuing importance of the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula for the security of Japan and East Asia as a whole".

It also notes the president's belief "that Japan is fully qualified to become a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations".

In 30 years everything has changed, but looked at another way, not much has changed at all.

Japan and the US still feel they need each other. Like old friends they have disagreements that at times annoy or frustrate.

Rarely, though, do they stay mad at each other for long.

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