Fumio Kyuma, Japan’ s outspoken defence minister, on Tuesday felt obliged to explain why he would not be meeting Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, who on Wednesday begins a visit to Japan during which security will take centre stage.
Mr Cheney, Mr Kyuma explained, could not be expected to meet a mere defence minister. “There is a difference in rank. It is a matter that pertains to the [Japanese] prime minister,” he said.
Behind Mr Kyuma’s humble remarks lie an awkward diplomatic moment. Earlier this month he lashed out at US foreign policy, saying Washington was wrong to invade Iraq and lambasting its arrogant attitude towards Okinawa, the island where the bulk of US troops in Japan are stationed.
Tokyo remains Washington’s main regional ally, and the relationship is robust enough to survive minor disagreements, analysts say. Yet Mr Kyuma’s remarks provoked outrage among Japan-handlers in the Bush administration and the embarrassment that has followed is one of several points of contention.
Japan continues to support US policy in Iraq, a point recently underlined by Shinzo Abe, prime minister, in a speech to Nato and again in parliament.
However, Taro Aso, foreign minister, suggested that Washington’s post-invasion strategy had been naive.
Tokyo has begun to pull out 550 ground troops stationed in Iraq to help reconstruction. It has also, however, stepped up the activity of its air self-defence force, which helps to supply US troops in Iraq.
There has also been concern in Japan about the deal struck with North Korea to shut down its main nuclear facility in exchange for oil. Some Japanese officials have, sotto voce, criticised Washington for conceding too much to Pyongyang.
Robert Dujarric, a security expert at the National Institute for Public Policy in the US, said: “The impression is that the deal was hammered out between the US, China and North Korea and that no one asked the Japanese what they thought.”
In particular, Mr Abe’s government has been embarrassed by the fact that the deal did not address North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, although a senior foreign ministry official has countered claims Japan had been sidelined.
“I don’t think it is the policy of the US to speed ahead at 100 miles per hour and leave behind all the other issues, including the abduction issue,” the official said. “All the other five parties, including North Korea, know there needs to be a huge participation by Japan.”