Imperial pomp to start Obama's Japan visit

Imperial pomp to start Obama's Japan visit

TOKYO - The first state visit to Japan by a US President in nearly two decades gets under way in earnest Thursday when Barack Obama is treated to the pomp and ceremony of an imperial reception.

Obama, whose arrival in Tokyo on Wednesday evening brought parts of the Japanese capital shuddering to a halt amid tight security, will be hoping to capitalise on the enthusiastic welcome he received to shore up the cross-Pacific alliance at a time of uncertainty in Asia.

The president will open his day Thursday with a welcoming ceremony at Japan's imperial palace hosted by Emperor Akihito. After talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe he will tour the Meiji Jingu shrine and be guest of honour at a state dinner.

But his chief task, as far as Japan is concerned, is to offer reassurances that Washington is standing by Tokyo's side, especially over a corrosive dispute with China about the ownership of disputed islands in the East China Sea.

He will also be looking to calibrate that support to avoid giving Abe carte blanche to push a revisionist view of history that upsets China and South Korea - stop two on Obama's tour and another key regional ally.

The trip will give Obama, who has met Abe briefly several times at international summits and at the White House, a chance to forge a personal connection with the Japanese premier.

"I think one important opportunity with this longer trip is to spend time getting to sit down with Abe and talk things through," said Michael Green, who framed White House East Asia strategy for President George W. Bush.

The pair kicked things off on Wednesday night with an informal dinner at a three Michelin starred sushi restaurant, renowned for the exquisite food its 88-year-old perfectionist patron serves.

In many ways, Abe is the kind of dynamic leader that Washington, frustrated by years of stagnation in Japanese politics and the economy, had longed for.

But his nationalistic impulses and ritual offerings to a shrine that counts senior war criminals among the fallen warriors it honours bring headaches for Washington, and complicate Japan's relations with China and South Korea.

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