- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

TOKYO | When in trouble, travel.

The political axiom easily could apply to Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, the first foreign leader invited to visit President Obama in Washington, according to analysts who cite two newspaper polls showing Mr. Aso’s support at historic lows.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Aso on Tuesday are expected to discuss a range of issues at the White House, including the global economic crisis, global warming, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

“I think it is most important for the United States and Japan to reach a conclusion together that the two countries should join hands in coping with long-term problems,” Mr. Aso told reporters at his office before departing Monday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Many analysts here question the timing of the visit and are asking why the beleaguered prime minister was invited to Washington and what the meeting can achieve.

“In Japan, Mr. Aso is facing a chorus of ‘quit’ from the Japanese people. At the White House, I think Mr. Aso is flushed with excitement and feeling very honored,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

Before leaving, Mr. Aso “probably spent hours mulling over what kind of souvenir he would bring to President Obama,” Mr. Morita said.

A poll conducted by major daily Mainichi over the weekend showed the approval rating for Mr. Aso’s Cabinet at 11 percent, the poorest showing for a prime minister since 2001.

Another major daily, Asahi, published a survey in which 71 percent of those polled said they want Mr. Aso to resign.

Since Mr. Aso took office in September, his popularity has eroded due to a deepening recession and last week’s resignation of his finance minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, after Mr. Nakagawa appeared to be drunk at a Group of Seven news conference in Rome.

Whether Mr. Aso is popular or not, Mr. Obama wants to reassure the prime minister that Japan remains a key ally, analysts say.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham’s Clinton’s visit to Japan last week and Mr. Aso’s visit to the U.S. are “clearly part of an American effort to assuage Japanese fears about the relationship,” said Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California at San Diego.

Mrs. Clinton chose Tokyo as the first stop on her first overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat last week, followed by visits to Indonesia, South Korea and China.

“The alliance between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone of our foreign policy,” Mrs. Clinton said in Tokyo.

Mr. Krauss said, “The Japanese press and conservative elites have had some very mistaken, distorted and outdated views about Mr. Obama and the Democrats based on their experiences with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

“Some believe that Mr. Obama would revive trade-friction pressures on Japan and ignore Japan in favor of China,” he said. “I think the U.S. wants to reassure Japan that these are unfounded fears, and to shore up the relationship, both in terms of security and economics.”

Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo and a retired army general, said, “The issue is not which country the U.S. attaches importance to. It is very important for the U.S. to continue to pay greater attention to China, which possesses nuclear weapons and has boosted military expenditures.”

China was also a topic when Mrs. Clinton met Ichiro Ozawa, president of the largest opposition group in Japan, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is leading polls ahead of general elections later this year.

“I told her that whether China can manage a soft landing on democratization is the biggest issue for the world, [for] the U.S. and Japan,” said Mr. Ozawa.

Mr. Ozawa told reporters that the U.S. and Japan should seek an equal partnership. “The alliance should not be a subservient relationship,” he said.

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