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Koizumi victory lap to include Graceland


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 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 tomorrow.

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 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 Presley. 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-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.

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

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

Indeed, Koizumi departs having molded Japan into America's most dependable Pacific ally. Certainly, there is 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 hurt neither Iraqis nor 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. 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 its soldiers should stay home.

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 U.S. military forces. And 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 U.S. bases on Japanese soil.

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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