In a part of the world where few things happen without calculation, George W. Bush’s choice of his first public appearance in Tokyo—assuming the president made the choice—is being studied like the act of an oracle, in Japan and the rest of East Asia. Set in spacious wooded grounds, Meiji Shrine is a well-known tourist attraction in central Tokyo, as well as being a popular venue for solemnising weddings. But Bush is already married, and the shrine carries some even weightier connotations. Emperor Meiji gave his name to the astonishing, if incomplete, modernisation of Japan during his reign, 1867-1912, including his successful wars against China and Russia, the seizure of Taiwan from China, and the annexation of Korea, which happen to be the next two stops on Bush’s current Asian tour. The president and his jolly wife did more than admire the shrine’s plum blossoms, just beginning to peep through. They stood at the inner sanctuary and bowed, a cut-down version of the two bows and a hand clap with which worshippers attract the attention of the deceased emperor, a living god in His own day, and pay homage to His eternal spirit. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meanwhile waited in a curtained limousine, fearing that joining the Bushes at their devotions could have been interpreted as violating the separation of religion and state prescribed by the Japanese constitution. But why did Bush go to Emperor Meiji’s shrine in the first place?
The grounds of the shrine are the only consecrated space in Tokyo big enough for another Shinto ritual, yabusame, or Japanese mounted archery, a blend of sport and religious observance that Bush had reportedly asked to see. Like all Japanese martial arts, yabusame started off as a way of killing people, in this case transfixing them with arrows as the archer gallops past. These days it is said to ensure peace and a good harvest, although the connection may be hard for non-Shintoists to see. At their meeting in Shanghai last October, Koizumi presented Bush with a yabusame arrow, a gesture interpreted at that time as expressing Japan’s support for the president’s war on global terrorism. The Bushes had not, before Sept. 11, shown any particular interest in traditional Japanese culture, and less lethal arts like flower arranging and the tea ceremony are readily available in Tokyo. The best guess is that the president wanted to show support, not of Meiji’s conquests, but of Koizumi’s politics, of which one controversial aspect of is the prime minister’s flirtation with Japanese nationalism as embodied in the idea of a warlike, divine monarchy—much to the alarm of Japan’s neighbours, who have been on the receiving end, and of Japan’s many pacifists, who are suspicious of the perpetual war against evil declared by the Bush administration. Any attack on the Asian anchor of Bush’s axis of evil, North Korea, would have to be mounted from Japan, well within the reported range of North Korean rockets. A new war on the Korean peninsula could, according to a Japanese military estimate, send a million refugees to Japan, many armed. Rather than invoking these grim prospects, paying respect to a dead emperor and archaic living horsemen showed Bush’s support for Koizumi, and the hope that it would be reciprocal.
Much the same considerations seem to have shaped Bush’s show of enthusiasm for Koizumi’s economic policies, without actually endorsing any of them. Like the Japan pundits, home-grown and foreign, Koizumi is wavering between bailing out Japan’s hopelessly indebted banks at the price of further undermining the credit of the Japanese Government itself, or letting some of the banks go under, with a full-blown depression the likely result. Such a depression would be all but certain to spread to the United States, and thence to the rest of the world. “It takes someone who’s ready to spend capital—the political capital—to get the agenda done,” said Bush, his new friend Koizumi beaming at his side. “Having listened to the Prime Minister at length today and looked him in the eye, I feel very confident that that’s precisely what he is going to do—pursue a bold agenda.” Bush has looked many men—Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Kenny Lay among them—in the eye, but it is far from clear how much his expert character assessment will sway Japanese voters. Koizumi’s popularity rating has just fallen from 80 percent to 50 percent after he abruptly dismissed his popular foreign minister, Ms. Makiko Tanaka, and seems likely, even with Bush’s help, to fall further. With no other power base, his waning popularity is the only political capital Koizumi has to spend.
Why is Bush being so helpful? Out of the goodness of a big heart, no doubt, but another quid pro quo is possible. Japan has been a keen supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at slowing global air pollution and climate warming, partly out of home-town pride, partly because Japan already gets more exports out of a kilowatt than anyone else on earth. The Japanese are among nature’s top belt-tighteners and, being close to their Kyoto quota already, the Protocol could even earn them a bit on the side selling pollution rights and air-scrubbing equipment. Koizumi has promised to try to persuade the United States to ratify Kyoto. But Bush made his position clear in Tokyo. The American proposals, put together with help from his Enron advisers, will increase carbon dioxide emissions by the United States, already the world’s top polluter. But the health of the American economy, Bush explained, has to be his first concern. Koizumi responded that he understood Bush’s position, the Japanese way of saying “I heard what you said.” If he tried any persuasion on Bush, it has not been recorded. Silence can sometimes be the most eloquent, and rewarding, of all tributes.