WASHINGTON -- Elvis is out. Baseball is in.
President Bush, who had a notably cozy relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, will host his successor, Shinzo Abe, today at the White House and tomorrow at Camp David.
Their personal ties are important politically. Japan is a large financial contributor to the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a vital trading partner, and an ally in pressuring North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons ambitions.
"We see Japan as our greatest strategic partner in East Asia, and an increasingly indispensable global partner," Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council's director for Asian Affairs, said yesterday in previewing Abe's visit.
Abe is following a tough act.
Bush hit it off easily with Koizumi, a huge Elvis Presley fan. The Bushes hosted a formal dinner for Koizumi last June, and the next day, Bush took him on a rollicking visit to Presley's Graceland mansion in Tennessee.
Abe has his own connection to Bush. "One thing they do share is a love of baseball, and a great deal of interest in Japan's most significant export to the United States in the last year," Wilder said.
He was referring to Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was signed this year by the Boston Red Sox and has become a media fascination.
Abe's visit comes weeks after he ignited a furor by saying there was no evidence that Japan's army forced "comfort women" to work in military brothels during World War II. Historians estimate up to 200,000 women, mostly Chinese and Korean, were forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers. Abe has tried to quell the backlash by apologizing.
Bush believes Abe has done a lot to clear up "the misunderstandings" on the issue, Wilder said.
Abe will meet congressional leaders, pay respects at Arlington National Ceremony, and visit injured troops at Bethesda Naval Hospital while his wife, Akie, visits Mount Vernon in Virginia with Laura Bush.
The president and the prime minister have many topics to cover. Among them: the Iraq war, the Middle East peace process, defense cooperation, environmental and energy concerns, bilateral and global trade, and North Korea.