DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, back here in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama will host Japan's prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, at the White House tomorrow. It's been more than three years since a Japanese head of state attended a White House summit.
Reporter Lucy Craft explains why.
LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Japan has had six leaders in as many years. And the smart money says Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took office only last fall, could be out by the end of the year, says Columbia University political scientist Gerald Curtis, in comments to reporters this week.
GERALD CURTIS: President Obama has to sit across the table and, saying to himself, how much longer is he likely to be prime minister when he gets back home? Are you going to invest a lot of time and energy and share intelligence about North Korea or anything else with someone who's likely to be gone very soon?
CRAFT: Any hope that last year's epic disasters would bring out the best in Japan's squabbling politicians has shriveled up faster than this year's cherry blossoms, to the disgust of observers like Professor Koichi Nakano, of Sophia University.
KOICHI NAKANO: I think we're just going to see more and more of these futile repetitions of frequent leadership turnover without accomplish much of anything.
CRAFT: The prime minister is described as a likeable man who's short on charisma but admired for his humility. Noda has staked his job on one of the most difficult issues confronting a debt-laden Japan right now - raising its sales tax to help pay for an aging and shrinking population.
Noda's visit coincides with a high point in U.S.-Japan relations. At the 11th hour, the two countries were able to sign a long-delayed agreement downsizing America's military forces in Okinawa. And the U.S.'s substantial support, both on a public and private level, right after the March disasters last year has boosted the U.S.'s profile among ordinary Japanese.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: In a Tokyo train station, I asked these two women whether China - now Japan's biggest trading partner - was more important than the U.S. right now. They were diplomatic. Both countries are important to Japan, they said. But when I asked which country they trust more...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken) America.
CRAFT: There was no hedging. America is more trustworthy, they said. The prime minister's spokesman, Noriyuki Shikata, said there's a push and pull to that answer.
NORIYUKI SHIKATA: In terms of appreciation among the Japanese, you know, towards the importance of U.S.-Japan alliance, I think this has no doubt, you know, improved, especially when, you know, the North Korean situation poses threat to us.
CRAFT: With both leaders preoccupied at home, no major pronouncements are expected from this week's summit. But with continued provocations from North Korea and an assertive China in its backyard, for Japan especially, reaffirming relations with its key ally remains as critical as ever.
For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.
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