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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Hatoyama tries to tread line between change, status quo

Staff writer

OSAKA — When Yukio Hatoyama makes his international debut as the new prime minister later this month at the United Nations and in Pittsburgh at the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit, he'll be discussing Japan's new policies on everything from the environment to the global economy with President Barack Obama and other world leaders.

But he'll also have to convince skeptics and naysayers in Washington that his election is good news for the future of Japan's relations with the U.S.

That task was made more difficult by a New York Times Op-Ed piece from Hatoyama just before the election that saw his Democratic Party of Japan oust the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Both the Times piece and the longer article that appeared in the Japanese-language magazine Voice, upon which the Op-Ed was based, alarmed those who follow Japan, especially when Hatoyama speculated that America's global dominance and the era of U.S.-style capitalism were coming to an end.

Hatoyama quickly backtracked, saying he'd been "misquoted" and that the piece was merely his philosophy, not the DPJ's. Although well before the Aug. 30 poll some major U.S. and Japanese media outlets had been extensively quoting U.S pundits — largely Republicans, conservative or promilitary think tank analysts and former Japan specialists under President George W. Bush — who predicted bilateral relations would get rocky under DPJ leadership, it was Hatoyama's Op-Ed that caused widespread concern on both sides of the Pacific.

"There was a great deal of nervousness in Japan about how Tokyo responded to the Hatoyama Op-Ed piece. But at least he gave a certain foundation to the policies of the DPJ. (The party) is trying to move Japan in a direction that looks more familiar to Europeans, perhaps, than Americans, in that they are trying to create a more responsive social welfare state," said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"That makes people in the U.S. a bit nervous about what that means for things like trade and investment," she said.

Hatoyama has spent the past week trying to reassure Americans he is not anti-American or anticapitalist. But the DPJ's rise is likely to make the military alliance strained. Under a 2006 accord, 8,000 U.S. Marines are to be relocated to Guam when an air base is built in northern Okinawa Island to replace Air Station Futenma.

The DPJ, which controls the prefectural assembly, has called for the base to be moved outside Okinawa. Its replacement is supposed to be completed by 2014 but construction is stalled due to local opposition.

Okinawa marines and officials in the prefecture privately say there is no way the facility will be completed by 2014. And even if it is, financial and logistic problems on Guam in accepting more marines, and their dependents, make meeting the 2006 pact even harder.

In recent days, U.S. officials have firmly denied they would agree to renegotiate the 2006 realignment agreement or the Status of Forces Agreement, which many DPJ members also want revised, setting up potentially contentious and protracted discussions over Okinawa and the role of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

But ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who served during Bush's first term, told Japanese and American policy experts last March in San Francisco that, if push comes to shove, the U.S. would agree to Japanese demands.

"If the government of Japan asked us to change things, we'd argue, we'd kick and scream, but ultimately we'd have to do it. We'd try to talk (Japan) out of it, we'd do everything we could, but, at the end of the day, we'd do it," Armitage said.

The Japan-U.S. military expansion under Bush and ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has created something of a political backlash in Japan, with voters worried about getting caught up in America's wars. DPJ supporters have long said they were wary of or opposed to Japan continuing its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean or providing military support for the war in Afghanistan, especially given recent public opinion polls in the U.S. that show opposition to the war is on the rise.

Thus the DPJ's vision for Japan's alliance with the U.S. is less military and less global in scope than the one the LDP maintained, and more based on regional cooperation within Asia. That vision is a departure from the vision many U.S. military brass and Japan experts have long pushed for, although in the presidential campaign, Obama said he envisioned greater nonmilitary regional cooperation in East Asia.

Gerald Curtis, Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University, speaking to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan the day after the DPJ victory, said that when Hatoyama and Obama finally meet in a few weeks, it would be best for Obama not to push the new prime minister on contentious bilateral issues like Futenma, Okinawa or the Indian Ocean mission and to focus instead on multilateral areas where the two have an interest, such as technology.

"Hatoyama and Obama may wish to emphasize nontraditional bilateral issues like environmental technology, which both have a strong interest in. On the more immediate issues, Hatoyama will finesse the differences (with the U.S.), assuming Obama gives him room to maneuver," Curtis said.

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