- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso will be the first foreign visitor to the Obama White House next week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

The invitation, which was extended by Mrs. Clinton during her visit to Tokyo, came as welcome news for the Japanese leader, whose government’s popularity dipped to a new low as Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said he will resign.

“This will be the first foreign-leader visit that President Obama will be receiving at the White House,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters in reference to the Feb. 24 visit. “The alliance between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone of our foreign policy.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said Mr. Aso accepted the invitation.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Nakagawa said he will step down after accusations that he was drunk during a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries in Rome on the weekend.

“I apologize for causing such a big fuss,” he said at a hastily arranged press conference. “I plan to submit a formal resignation as soon the budget and related legislation are passed by the [parliament’s] lower house.”

He has denied he was drunk, saying he appeared groggy because he had taken cold medicine and was suffering from jet lag. TV footage from Rome showed him looking drowsy and confused and slurring his speech.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura publicly rebuked him Monday and opposition leaders demanded his resignation.

“I am ashamed of him,” said Ichiro Ozawa, who heads the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. “His responsibility is very heavy.”

Mrs. Clinton steered clear of commenting on the scandal and repeatedly emphasized the importance Washington attaches to working with Tokyo on various issues. She thanked Japan to its contribution to rebuilding Afghanistan.

The secretary and Mr. Nakasone signed an agreement to move about 8,000 of the 50,000 U.S. troops on the island of Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

She also warned North Korea against conducting a missile test, which the North said Monday it had the right to do.

“The possible missile launch that North Korea is talking about would be very unhelpful,” she said.

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