Swan Song

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Six days before President Bush’s 60th birthday on July 6, perhaps Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, can give an encore to the song he sang at his good friend’s birthday party last year: Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” This time, the location couldn’t be better – they will be at Graceland Mansion.

Mr. Koizumi, who will step down in September, after more than five years in office, is going to say goodbye to Mr. Bush at the White House tomorrow. In return, Mr. Bush and the First Lady will accompany Mr. Koizumi, a big-time fan of the King, to Memphis, Tenn., on Friday, where a tour of the legendary singer’s home will be led by none other than Elvis’s only child, Lisa Marie, and her mother, Priscilla. This is a wonderful farewell gift to America’s best friend in Asia, whose nickname is the Lion King for his lion-like hairstyle and unbending determination to advance structural reform.

Mr. Koizumi, born in 1942 and seven years Elvis’s junior, shares more than a birthday (January 8) with his favorite rock star. Like the King, who shook up the American music scene with his revolutionary style, the Lion King also injected previously unthinkable ways of conducting diplomacy into Japan’s political arena.

How many people can remember the other 10 prime ministers Japan has had in the past two decades? Not many, I’m afraid. Most of Mr. Koizumi’s predecessors tended to be either short-lived in office (as few as several weeks) or faceless politicians with mediocre performances, or both. When Mr. Koizumi steps down in a few months, he will leave a remarkable record as the longest-serving prime minister in more than three decades.

Mr. Koizumi’s legacy perhaps can best be summarized as turning Japan into a normal nation from a politically dwarfish economic giant. Rising from the ashes of World War II, Japan – bound by a U.S.-imposed peace constitution, which stipulates that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” – has played a low-key role in international affairs, except for exporting better and better products all over the world.

The first Gulf War was a humiliating experience for the Japanese, whose country could only serve as a cash cow paying the bills. Six decades after inflicting tremendous suffering on its Asian neighbors, Mr. Koizumi believes Japan, having been transformed into a democratic and peaceful nation, should move on. Rightly so.

A key component in Mr. Koizumi’s plan of normalizing Japan is to become an unmistakably staunch ally of America. Japan’s positions on three international issues of major importance to America provide clear evidence of this approach.

* On Iraq. When September 11 occurred, Mr. Koizumi, five months into office, was among the first to offer support to Mr. Bush in the war against terrorism. And Mr. Koizumi backed up his words with groundbreaking actions – sending 600 Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq for non-combat missions in early 2004, after pushing through special legislation authorizing the deployment. This was the first time Japanese troops were sent overseas since the end of World War II. Tokyo’s announcement last week of bringing these troops home wasn’t a measure of cut-and-run. They’re leaving only because Iraqi forces are ready to take over. Meanwhile, Japan’s air operations are expanding in Iraq.

* On North Korea. Tokyo remains the only party that genuinely shares Washington’s goal of denuclearizing Kim Jong Il’s kingdom in the Six-Party Talks. Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul, one way or another, side more with Pyongyang. As Mr. Kim is threatening to test another missile, the two allies signed a pact on Friday to expand cooperation on a joint ballistic missile defense system that would develop a next-generation missile interceptor. The signal they sent couldn’t be clearer to Pyongyang. Beijing, aiming 800 missiles at Taiwan, will also take note.

* On Iran. In spite of heavy dependence on Iranian oil, Japan has reportedly agreed to support U.S.-led sanctions if Iran refuses to make a U-turn in its nuclear program. Tehran would suffer considerably should Tokyo freeze its assets. In other words, Japan is willing to risk its own energy security in order to show solidarity with America.

All of these couldn’t have happened so easily were it not for Mr. Koizumi. And Mr. Bush didn’t call Mr. Koizumi “one of my best friends in the international community” for no reason. When Mr. Bush visited Kyoto last November, the two leaders had a very warm meeting and Mr. Bush had only nice words to say about his host: “I know the prime minister well. I trust his judgment. I admire his leadership. And America is proud to have him as an ally in the cause of peace and freedom.”

Some in Japan have questioned Mr. Koizumi’s overtly pro-American stand, claiming it has hurt Japan’s relations with China. Mr. Koizumi disagrees. He told Mr. Bush in Kyoto that the amicable relationship between Japan and America makes it possible for Japan to maintain good relations with other countries, in particular China, Korea, and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Mr. Bush fully agreed and said that even from China’s perspective, a good Japanese-American relationship would prompt Beijing to cultivate good relations with Japan and the United States.

I only hope the successors to Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Bush have the same determination and wisdom to strengthen this bilateral relationship, which embodies genuine mutual interests and values.

Mr. Liu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and general manager of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, is a Washington-based columnist.

The New York Sun

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