TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to visit China and South Korea in the coming days in an effort to allay fears that his nation is becoming more militaristic as it gears up to support a U.S.-led strike against terrorism.
Koizumi also hopes to repair the damage caused by a controversial textbook's treatment of World War II and his own visit to a war memorial, which together put Japanese relations with the two neighbors on their worst footing in years.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Koizumi expects to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Monday and with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung on Oct. 15.
Beijing and Seoul rebuffed a similar summit offer from Koizumi a few months ago. The cold shoulder raised fears that the prime minister might be snubbed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai later this month.
"They wanted to clear the air before APEC," said Hirokazu Matsumoto, an independent foreign relations expert.
Koizumi has pledged to pass legislation allowing the Japanese armed forces to provide medical, transportation and logistical support overseas and to assist refugees in Central Asia--far from the nation's shores. His government also announced Thursday that it will provide up to $120 million to help Afghan refugees.
Although neither Seoul nor Beijing has publicly criticized Japan's proposed legal changes, analysts say China in particular is wary that the anti-terrorism issue could be a pretext for Japan to extend its military reach.
China and South Korea were already miffed by Koizumi's Aug. 13 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined, as well as by a textbook that they believe soft-pedals Japan's wartime aggression and its treatment of Asian women forced into prostitution by the military.
Analysts said they expect Koizumi to tell both governments that Japan has no expansionist ambitions and is only acting in support of a global anti-terrorism battle.
He also is expected to discuss the textbook issue and shrine visit, attempting to show personal understanding for the concerns raised, analysts said. He has not yet announced whether he will revisit the shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, next August during annual commemorations.
On the textbook issue, Koizumi also may argue that little damage was done since most Japanese schools chose not to use the controversial book.
Some question how effective his trips will be.
"Koizumi doesn't really have any strategic objective but instead is trying to convince them of his sincerity," said independent analyst Matsumoto. "And while his personal touch has won great support among the Japanese public, offering your heart isn't always enough in international relations. His diplomatic initiative may end up looking a bit naive."
Japan has relatively little to offer the two neighboring nations financially, given its relatively empty coffers and stated intention to reduce overseas development assistance to China in the coming years. As a show of faith, Koizumi may pledge to reduce aid by a lesser amount than planned. He also may offer to ease so-called safeguard restrictions on certain Chinese agricultural and textile exports to Japan.
"Hopefully bilateral relations will improve," said Ryosei Kokubun, professor of international relations at Keio University. "It's not as though this is the first time this textbook issue has come up. China and South Korea have had a relatively low expectation of Japan in this area anyway."
Despite Koizumi's pledge to pass enabling legislation as early as this month for an expanded military support role in any future conflict, polls show Japanese voters are divided on the issue, with support fluctuating depending on how the question is asked. Two new bills would enable Japan to dispatch its armed forces overseas and use the military to protect U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
Even if the bills are passed, public support could fall away quickly, some warn.
"Japanese citizens seem to think assistance is all right as long as Japan's Self-Defense Forces don't get involved in actual fighting," said Ryuichiro Hosokawa, an independent political analyst. "If they thought carefully about what might happen if the SDF is attacked while transporting goods near a war zone, however, their opinion could quickly change."
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.