Japan rolls out its £500m red carpet for the G8 leaders

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The Independent Online

In most countries, the holding of a summit of the Group of Eight leaders would be at best a matter of marginal concern. But in Japan, the G8 summit, which kicks off on the island of Okinawa tomorrow, is a national undertaking, an event hyped, previewed and analysed with a fervour that in Britain is reserved for major sporting occasions or royal babies.

In most countries, the holding of a summit of the Group of Eight leaders would be at best a matter of marginal concern. But in Japan, the G8 summit, which kicks off on the island of Okinawa tomorrow, is a national undertaking, an event hyped, previewed and analysed with a fervour that in Britain is reserved for major sporting occasions or royal babies.

For weeks, the preparations have occupied the front pages of the Tokyo papers, whether or not there has been anything of substance to report. Even the "sports" papers - Japan's equivalent of the tabloids - have been infected by summit fever, reacting with indignation when Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, skipped a preparatory foreign ministers' meeting to mediate between Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat.

"Is peace in the Middle East more important than Japan's summit?" the Evening Sports asked with bitter sarcasm, apparently unaware that in most parts of the world the answer would be an overwhelming "yes".

As the peace talks at Camp David dragged on yesterday, Japanese officialdom was on tenterhooks with the appalling possibility that the summit's star turn, Bill Clinton, might make his excuses (in the end he has delayed his arrival by 10 hours). The summit will cost Japan more than 81 billion yen - about half a billion pounds - making it the most expensive to be staged anywhere.

As well as the cohorts of Japanese diplomats and their auxiliaries, the small island of Okinawa will be reinforced with 22,000 police, 2,500 coast guards, 140 patrol boats, 20 planes and eight naval destroyers, all dedicated to protecting the peninsula on which the leaders will conduct their deliberations. Even Namie Amuro, Japan's most adored songstress and a native of Okinawa, has contributed to the patriotic cause with a G8 pop song called "Never End".

While the G8 leaders are feted in Okinawa, one group of guests has become a bit too much of a burden - the 26,000 US troops stationed there. The people of Okinawa are calling for a reduction in that presence.

People from Okinawa's governor, Keiichi Inamine, to Sunao Ginaha, a butcher in the G8 host city of Nago, hope that the leaders can get a sense of the position on the ground by looking at the lay of the bases.

Activists plan to hand a petition to Mr Clinton and Japan's Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, with about 20,000 signatures asking them to halt plans to build a US military air base in Okinawa.

What is it about Japan and summits that so many people pay such earnest attention to a event of largely symbolic significance, scripted behind the scenes days in advance by faceless officials?

In part, the answer is isolation. Perched on the edge of Asia, Japan shares in few of the comforting diplomatic clubs its G8 partners take for granted as a matter of routine. British ministers and diplomats make regular appearances at meetings of the EU, Nato and the UN security council. Apart from the G8 and the UN General Assembly, Japan has only the rather inchoate annual meeting of Apec, the Asia-Pacific Co-operation Forum, to look forward to. And when Japan hosted Apec in Osaka in 1995, guess what happened? Bill Clinton failed to turn up.

Partly, too, it is style over substance - a colossal act of overcompensation for a lack of any distinctive foreign policy. Since the end of the Second World War, Japan has failed to match its remarkable economic recovery with anything approaching a diplomatic identity. On international issues, Japan steers a middle course, attempting to irritate as few people as possible, but not managing to make any impression in the process.

The postwar constitution which, on paper at least, commits the country to pacifism, has much to do with this. So does Japan's geographical position, caught uncomfortably between the American sphere of influence in the Pacific and the growing power of China. When the visiting delegations make their departure on Sunday evening, the chances are that they will remember the summit for its lavishness and meticulous planning, long after the resolutions and communiqués have been forgotten.

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