A pair of one-day summits in Beijing and Seoul will give Japan's new prime minister an opportunity to repair relations with Tokyo's neighbors. However, such bilateral diplomacy will take a back seat to discussions on how North Korea's neighbors should respond if Pyongyang makes good on its threat to test a nuclear weapon.
North Korea appears to have spoiled what was supposed to have been getting-to-know-you sessions between Shinzo Abe and his counterparts in Beijing and Seoul.
The new Japanese prime minister is to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders in Beijing on Sunday and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul the following day.
It now appears the North Korean threat to test an nuclear explosive device will overshadow efforts to repair relationships with China and South Korea. But Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says he expects there will be time to cover all the important items.
"Japanese bureaucrats, diplomats have gained fame, or some would say notoriety, in covering all agendas so I would imagine that the Japanese side, of course including Mr. Shinzo Abe himself, are going to try to cover as much as possible as scheduled," he said.
Mr. Abe, who took over from Junichiro Koizumi last month, has promised to improve relations with Japan's neighbors, which soured during his predecessor's five years in office.
The prime minister, speaking in parliament, says it is essential to speak frankly and build trust because a lack of communication gives rise to misunderstandings. He says even if Japan has disagreements with China and South Korea, discussions should continue.
It has been five years since the last summit between Japan and China in Beijing. The last summit in Seoul was 16 months ago. China and South Korea froze out Mr. Koizumi in part to protest his annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, where Japan's war dead - including convicted World War II criminals - are honored.
While Mr. Abe in recent days has soft-pedaled his conservative views on Japan's brutal colonialism, it may not be enough to quickly appease Asians with bitter memories of Tokyo's aggression in the first half of the 20th century.
Yoshinori Suematsu, a member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Party, says that is why he has few expectations for any significant breakthroughs in Beijing or Seoul.
"I expect no substantial results other than the political show which enables Mr. Abe to escape from the political quagmire concerning (the) Yasukuni Shrine problem and his rightist position on the history understanding," he said.
Mr. Abe has been tight-lipped about the controversial shrine, refusing to say whether he will visit Yasukuni while in office.
Suematsu predicts that Mr. Abe will tell the Chinese he will not visit the shrine - and that may be a promise he will not keep, which would again damage Japan's regional diplomacy.
"If Mr. Abe will violate the promise he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine, well, like Mr. Koizumi, China and (South) Korea (will) think Mr. Abe is not a proper counterpart," he said.
Some of Mr. Abe's allies and constituents would applaud him if he took a tough stance with Beijing and Seoul, but he will also face rising domestic criticism from business leaders. They are eager to see improved diplomatic ties because their priorities are trade and investment, not preserving a nationalist view of Japan's past.