The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) - President Bush, concerned about Japan's recession-wracked economy, opened a three-nation Asian tour Sunday urging embattled Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to follow through on long-promised economic reforms.

Seeking a delicate balance, the U.S. president was publicly embracing Koizumi and his agenda while privately prodding the prime minister to take the painful steps toward reversing a decade-long economic slump, aides said. Bush hopes his support will tame Koizumi's critics.

"I believe my friend will be able to lead the economy out of its doldrums," Bush told reporters before arriving in Tokyo. "I firmly believe the Japanese economy needs significant reforms and restructuring."

Key to stability in Asia, Japan has solidly supported the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

After a seven-hour flight from Alaska, the president and first lady Laura Bush stepped off Air Force One and into a cold drizzle late Sunday afternoon. He had no public events until Monday.

Downtown, police kept Bush protesters and supporters at bay.

Bush began his first full day in Tokyo with a visit to the Meiji Shrine and a display of horseback archery on the shrine's tree-lined grounds. The shrine, where ruling emperors were once worshipped as divine, was destroyed in World War II by U.S. bombings and rebuilt in 1958.

Koizumi, who was Bush's guest at the Camp David presidential retreat in June, was returning the favor by honoring Bush with a formal dinner and reception at his residence. Their business meeting were being held at the Iikura House, a government conference center.

Japan's fortunes are critical to the U.S. economy, which is showing signs of an upturn.

"You can't get the economy going and the region on the right track without Japan," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

The president's seven-day trip also includes stops in South Korea and China, where the war against terrorism will take center stage. Global warming is another issue as Bush brings word of his volunteer program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He rejected an international treaty named after the Japanese city Kyoto.

Japan is mired in recession, with unemployment at a postwar high of 5.6 percent. Banks are saddled with billions of dollars in bad loans and deflation is wiping out the value of property they hold as collateral.

Koizumi rode into office last year on a wave of popularity after campaigning against the entrenched alliances of Japan's political and business elite.

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He promised to clean up the bad bank debts and encourage competition in protected areas to revive the economy without resorting to pork-barrel public works spending. He warned that such changes would not come without sacrifice, such as higher unemployment.

There have been signs that the administration is growing impatient with Japan's sluggish pace.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill traveled to Japan last month to urge officials to deregulate industries, write off bad bank loans and stop trying to prop up the economy with a weak yen and deficit spending.

The Japanese government has allowed the yen to slip against the dollar since November to make Japanese exports more competitive, a move that hurts U.S. industries.

"The policy prescriptions of the past - export-led growth and endless public works projects - cannot work," O'Neill said.

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