Improved Grades for the Land of the Rising Sun

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WASHINGTON: Keizo Obuchi is finally getting respect. The put-upon Japanese prime minister was in town Monday to talk trade and economics with President Clinton -- and while the post-summit press conference veered more into the Balkans than either leader probably would have liked, it was clear from the praise Clinton heaped on his counterpart that U.S.-Japanese relations are about more than steel imports and nagging. Japan's economy is still in the dumps, and hardly the free-trade zone the U.S. wants it to be, but there are signs of life. And Washington is ready to give Obuchi his due.

"Some of that praise was just Clinton playing good cop," says former TIME Tokyo bureau chief Frank Gibney, "but there's been a growing recognition in Washington that Obuchi may be dull, but he doesn't deserve to get read the riot act every time he shows up. He's held the place together while those who can reform the Japanese economy -- the bureaucrats and the business leaders -- move toward change at their glacial pace." In short, he's done everything a Japanese prime minister could have -- and Washington is realizing it should be thankful for what it can get.