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Obama in Japan: what a difference a bad year makes

Since the US president met with his Japanese counterpart last year, Obama has been belittled by voters, and Japan has been humiliated by his neighbors. Today, Japan and America need each other badly, and maybe more than ever.

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President Obama arrived in Tokyo today, exactly one year to the day of his first official trip to Japan as commander-in-chief. He is here to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama, but his itinerary includes a brief “personal” excursion to the Great Buddha, a 44-foot tall bronze statue in Kamakura, which Mr. Obama first visited as a boy with his mother. While it is safe to say that the seven-and-a-half centuries old Buddha has changed very little since last November, or even since Mr. Obama’s childhood encounter, the state of his host nation has shifted significantly.

Last year, the Japan that greeted Obama was star-struck by the man, less so by the nation he had been elected to represent. Domestic voters had only a few months earlier managed to unseat the Liberal Democratic Party, whose nearly unbroken 50-year plus dominance of Japanese politics was largely characterized by policies friendly to American business and the US military. Its successor, the Democratic Party of Japan, won on a platform that was both more socialistic economically, and more Asia-friendly politically.

A different vision last year

Incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wrote a provocative essay, published in translation in major US newspapers, advocating a new spirit of “fraternity” with Japan’s long-neglected Asian neighbors, citing the imminent end of America’s global leadership and implying that a decreasing reliance upon the US would be in his nation’s best interest.

IN PICTURES: Obama's Asia trip

Mr. Hatoyama’s essay caused predictable alarm in Washington. Its impact was compounded by conflict over the relocation of an American military base in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost islands, which have hosted the bulk of US troops since the end of World War II.

The Japan that welcomed Mr. Obama just one year ago was celebratory but wary, and the president seemed alert to the schism, regaling his Tokyo audience with soft power stories about his boyhood Buddha visit and his love of green-tea ice cream while reminding them of the persistent military threats posed by North Korea and China.

What a difference a bad year makes.

Japan has a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, whose approval ratings have tanked in recent months owing to a variety of desultory happenings. His predecessor’s increasingly indecisive behavior ultimately led to another “caving in” to US military demands: Hatoyama, it turns out, had no negotiating points for the Okinawan air base conflict, and simply gave up in May. Mr. Kan was elected in June to save a party and political system that was beginning to look farcical.

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