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Clinton sets upbeat note by visiting Japan first

TOKYO -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here on the first stop of her Asian tour Monday night, declaring that she wanted "to create networks of partners in order to deal with the problems that no nation, even ours, can deal with alone," such as climate change and the global economic crisis.

Clinton, at an elaborate arrival ceremony, lauded the U.S.-Japanese partnership, calling it "a cornerstone of our efforts around the world."

At a news conference today, Clinton warned North Korea against a possible missile launch, saying it would hurt relations. "The possible missile launch that North Korea is talking about would be very unhelpful," she said.

Her comments came a day after the North claimed it has the right to "space development" -- a term it has used previously to disguise a missile test as a satellite launch. Intelligence indicates the North may be planning another launch. The claim came Monday, the 67th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

During Monday's arrival ceremony, Clinton again emphasized that she is making her first trip to Asia as chief U.S. diplomat to signify the importance of U.S.-Asian relationships. She is the first secretary of state in nearly 50 years to start his or her tenure with a trip to Asia, in contrast to the usual European and Middle Eastern tours.

But for Japan, even greater importance is attached to the symbolism. Her arrival breaks a run of bad news for Japan's government. The export-dependent economy is sinking fast, and the prime minister's popularity is sinking faster.

The visit also helps soothe a national neurosis called "Japan passing." The term came to haunt Japan after President Bill Clinton made a nine-day visit to China in 1998 but not Japan.

That nonvisit by the new secretary of state's husband helped spark what has become a chronic Japanese worry: That the focus of U.S. policy in East Asia has permanently shifted to China, when it is not obsessed with persuading North Korea to get rid of nuclear weapons.

"The fact that Secretary Clinton is making her first foreign trip to Japan is in itself an important and welcome message," said Takeshi Akamatsu, a spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We still have the memories of Bill Clinton flying over us."

As if to emphasize her interest in Japan, Clinton will mix high diplomacy -- including dinner with Prime Minister Taro Aso -- with cultural and symbolic events, such as tea with the empress. She also will meet with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and hold a town hall meeting at Tokyo University.

"I think it's important that we get out of the ministerial buildings and listen to the people in the countries where I'll be visiting," Clinton told reporters.

This Clinton visit, however, may still end up worrying the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Under Aso, the ruling party is in desperate trouble. Aso's approval ratings, after less than half a year in power, have sunk to below 10 percent. And the economy is sliding into an "unimaginable" recession, the chief economist of the Japan's central bank said last week, citing plunging numbers for industrial output and surging bankruptcies.

Clinton's schedule suggests that the Obama administration might be hedging its bets on Aso. She is scheduled to meet today with opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan. Although secretaries of state often meet opposition leaders, they have rarely done so in Japan.

Polls suggest Ozawa's party could knock Aso and the LDP out of power in an election that has to be called by September.

As for the substance of Clinton's talks with the Japanese government, she will sign an agreement today that will move 8,000 U.S. troops from the Japanese island of Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a move Japan is largely paying for. Other topics include stalled talks over North Korea's nuclear program and climate change.

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