TOKYO -- With more than two weeks to go before President George Bush's thrice-delayed state visit here, Japanese commentators are criticizing it as a bizarre blunder.
"Weird" and "weirder" were the words Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japan Economic News), the country's leading financial daily, used to describe the visit in an editorial last week.
Like most Japanese commentators, the paper fixed on two themes:
* "Weird" timing. After all the postponements, the leaders of both the world's economic superpowers both happen now to have low approval ratings in the polls.
"Two politically weakened leaders, both worried about their economies and both sagging in the polls -- a formula for each to make lots of grandstand plays for the home audience but neither to feel strong enough to do anything substantive," a U.S. diplomat here said, on condition that he not be identified.
* A "weirder" and increasingly commercial tone. When the trip was scheduled for November, Mr. Bush planned to join Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in making Japan-U.S. global cooperation the dominant theme. Now he has added 21 chief executives of U.S. companies to his retinue and said that he is coming "to help open the giant markets there to more American exports."
Mr. Bush has sent Mr. Miyazawa a letter that amounts to a list of U.S. demands -- all on trade issues -- and orders the U.S. Embassy to schedule a symbolic stop at a new Toys "R" Us store in the former imperial capital of Nara.
"It makes you wonder if the president has demoted himself to secretary of commerce," Nihon Keizai Shimbun quipped, a distinctly un-Japanese dose of sarcasm to apply to a visiting head of state.
Newspapers are not alone in bemoaning the timing of the visit.
The president's arrival date is the first day back at work for most Japanese after the New Year's break, which is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan and a time of compelling family obligations.
That meant that Mr. Bush's advance team -- scores of security, logistics, protocol and diplomacy planners -- had to choose between their own Christmas holidays and the New Year's holidays of their Japanese counterparts.
They chose to enjoy their own holidays before coming here and will arrive Dec. 27, just as most Japanese are heading home for the only long break most of them take all year.
As a result, thousands of Japanese -- from observers of the United States at the Foreign Ministry to the principal of the high school in Kyoto that Mr. Bush plans to visit -- will have to give up part or all of their holidays to meet with American planners.
"We explained to them what they were doing to the Japanese side, and we strongly recommended that they send a team here early in December and then go back home for Christmas," a U.S. diplomat apologetically told a Japanese diplomat at a dinner party. "But in the end, it's Washington that gives the orders and the embassy that follows them."
Not everyone is getting a bad deal.
To provide eight helicopters for the president's side trip to the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, more than 100 U.S. Marines will spend at least one night -- and possibly three, according to one plan -- in a first-class hotel in Osaka, Japan's No. 2 metropolis.
U.S. servicemen in Japan usually have to pay out their own way if they want that kind of glimpse of bright lights.
The addition of the corporate executives, and a few of their aides, will push the president's retinue up to an expected 650, the biggest party any head of state or government has ever brought to Japan. It is expected to include up to 250 journalists.
"The Foreign Ministry is at a loss how to handle the executives," Nikkei reported in an article last week.
"The point," a Japanese diplomat said, confirming the report, "is that we invited the president, not the CEOs. He invited the CEOs, and we understand some of them didn't want to come, but how could they say no? And now, how can we?"
Some Japanese officials say they detest helping Mr. Bush use the businessmen as what the diplomat called, "stage props to show Americans back home how tough he's being with Japan."
But the Foreign Ministry is scrambling for ways to give the added guests red-carpet treatment rather than risk upsetting senior U.S. businessmen at a time of increasing trade friction.
When Mr. Bush rescheduled the trip for next month, Mr. Miyazawa was a newly installed prime minister, expected by some to be stronger than his predecessor, the hapless Toshiki Kaifu.
Americans hoped he might be strong enough that he could afford to deliver some concessions the president could take home for domestic political display. But Mr. Miyazawa has proved calamitously less effective than expected.
This month, he failed to win parliamentary approval for something Mr. Bush wanted: a bill to let up to 2,000 Japanese troops be used overseas in United Nations peacekeeping operations.