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Japanese leader's US visit offers apt end to 5-year run

Bush to celebrate alliance at Graceland

TOKYO -- Junichiro Koizumi is about to leave the building.

After his 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 under way, lending a victory-lap aura to the prime minister's visit to Washington that begins today.

Unless North Korea fires a long-range missile in the interim, there won't be much business on the table when he meets 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 '50s vintage statue of Presley outside a Love Me Tender Elvis shop.

The idea of taking Koizumi to Graceland has been kicked around since the two leaders first met years ago, American officials say. Though stingy in granting official state visits that require a huge serving of pomp and get in the way of doing business, Bush does still grant special status to leaders who have stood with him on the Iraq war.

``The president wants to convey his gratitude for the friendship he's offered," US 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 Japan's laggard approach to removing the ban it slapped on American beef 29 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 Japan's pacifist constitution in order to send a small, symbolic contingent of troops to Iraq.

The Japanese troops spent much of their time rooted to their base or doing humanitarian work, protected by Dutch, British, and Australian soldiers while striving to neither hurt any Iraqi or themselves.

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

In return, a grateful Bush administration rallied to Koizumi's side on issues that dearly matter to Japan: dealing with the nuclear bluster of North Korea 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 US military forces. And last Friday, the two governments signed a deal expanding their cooperation on developing an anti-ballistic missile defense and have indicated they would agree to base advanced Patriot missiles at US bases on Japanese soil for the first time.

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