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Koizumi to Get a King's Welcome

President Bush will treat his friend, the outgoing Japanese premier and huge Elvis fan, to a going-away present: a visit to Graceland.

June 27, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Junichiro Koizumi is about to leave the building.

After five years as Japan's prime minister, the curtain is coming down on the leader who alternately charmed and bullied his country into overhauling atrophied political and economic systems, while casting its lot more deeply with Washington.

Japan is already on the cusp of the post-Koizumi era. The race to succeed him is underway, lending a victory-lap aura to the prime minister's visit to Washington, which begins Thursday.

Unless North Korea fires a long-range missile in the interim, there won't be much business on the table when Koizumi meets with President Bush. The leaders will celebrate the happy state of an alliance that purrs like a Toyota engine, and Koizumi will accept the thanks of a president who has praised him as "a man of clear vision and inner strength."

And then Bush will take Koizumi to Graceland.

It's probably the biggest and best going-away gift the president could give the man he never misses a chance to call a friend.

Koizumi flaunts his lifelong devotion to Elvis. They share a Jan. 8 birthday -- the 64-year-old prime minister was born seven years after the King. In the 1990s while still a rising politician, Koizumi lent his weight to a lobby that was successful in erecting a 1950s statue of Presley outside a Love Me Tender Elvis shop.

And as prime minister in 2001, he put out a charity CD of his 25 favorite Elvis tunes, a selection that skipped predictable staples like "Hound Dog" in favor of such "message" songs as "If I Can Dream" and a sampling of gospel numbers. Not immune to Presley's kitsch, Koizumi also included "Hawaiian Wedding Song."

The idea of taking Koizumi to Graceland had been kicked around since the two leaders first met years ago, American officials say. Though it's rare for Bush to grant an official state visit that requires a huge serving of pomp and gets in the way of doing business, he gives special status to leaders who have stood with him on the Iraq war.

That's why the president took Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen cycling around Camp David this month. And in May, he rolled out an official gala for Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Protocol dictates that Koizumi, as head of government, get a 19-gun salute, two shots short of the 21 for a head of state. But the treatment will still be royal for a leader Bush finds witty and easygoing in private, American officials say.

"The president wants to convey his gratitude for the friendship he's offered," U.S. Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer said last week in Tokyo. "It will be a big deal. It will be a lot of fun as well as a substantive opportunity to talk about the legacy this friendship will leave."

Indeed, Koizumi departs having molded Japan into America's most dependable Pacific ally. Certainly there is still occasional friction. Congress is threatening economic reprisals over what it says is Japan's laggard approach to removing the ban it imposed on American beef 30 months ago over a case of mad cow disease.

But to the administration's pleasure, Koizumi has increased Japan's willingness to raise its voice in international affairs, most notably by stretching the nation's pacifist constitution to send a small, symbolic contingent of troops to Iraq. The troops spent much of their time rooted to their base or doing humanitarian work, protected by Dutch, British and Australian soldiers while striving neither to hurt Iraqis or be hurt themselves.

"I am glad that the mission can be completed without one bullet being fired and not one person injured," Koizumi is reported to have told the leader of his coalition partner last week when plans to withdraw the troops were announced.

But the Iraq mission transformed Japan. For the relatively small price of deploying 600 soldiers at a time to Iraq, the country freed itself from the psychological shackles of its militarist past, making it acceptable for Japanese soldiers to head into foreign war zones again.

Contrast that with the national humiliation of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Japan was told by its allies that its money was welcome to finance the fighting but that its soldiers should stay home.

In return for Japan's help in Iraq this time, the Bush administration rallied to Koizumi's side on issues that dearly matter to Tokyo: dealing with North Korea's nuclear bellicosity and showing concern about China's military expansion.

The close partnership has resulted in a sharp increase in the level of integration of Japanese and U.S. military forces. The two governments signed a deal Friday expanding their cooperation on developing an antiballistic missile defense, and they have indicated recently that they would agree to install advanced Patriot missiles at U.S. bases in Japan for the first time.

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