Japan's New Leader Seeks Revision of Ties With U.S.

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 17, 2009

TOKYO, Sept. 16 -- Hours after he became prime minister Wednesday, Yukio Hatoyama said he wants to change Japan's "somewhat passive" relationship with the United States and review the large American military presence here.

Since his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won in a historic landslide Aug. 30, Hatoyama has tried to reassure the United States that the nation remains the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy while following through on his party's campaign vow to make the two nations' relationship more equal.

In a sign that he was trying to find the right balance, he said Wednesday that he didn't "believe we can do things without the U.S."

Hatoyama, who has a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, is expected to travel to New York next week to participate in the U.N. General Assembly session and might meet with President Obama during the trip.

As his party mounted its challenge this year to the Liberal Democratic Party, which had always maintained a close relationship with the United States, it criticized what it described as Japan's excessively docile dealings with its principal postwar ally and military protector. The DPJ said it would renegotiate a "status of forces" agreement that keeps 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

In particular, the party wanted the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station to move to a new location on the southern island of Okinawa. It said Japan should rethink its pledge to pay $6 billion to the United States for relocating about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to a new base on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. The party also wanted to withdraw Japanese naval vessels from a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

After the DPJ's victory, however, Hatoyama and other party leaders appeared to roll back the demands, saying that they might "suggest" revisions in the status-of-forces agreement and in funding for base relocation.

At the news conference Wednesday, Hatoyama seemed to be trying to define a middle ground. He said that he does not "intend to change our basic policy" toward the United States and that he wants "to build a relationship of trust" with Obama. He added, however, that he wants a relationship with the United States "in which I can actively and frankly voice our thoughts."

Under a postwar treaty, the United States is obligated to defend Japan in case of attack.

In recent days, it appeared that soothing statements by Hatoyama's party, as well as private discussions between U.S. and Japanese military officials, had reassured the United States. The commander of American military forces in the Pacific, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, said in Washington on Tuesday that he did not foresee a meaningful shift in the alliance.

"I'm very confident, almost certain, that there'll be maybe some discussions about certain aspects of U.S.-Japan military alliance, but writ large, no significant change anticipated, and that's good," Keating said, according to the Reuters news service.

A Question of Mandate

Rethinking Japan's ties to its closest ally and major trading partner was not the clarion call that induced huge numbers of Japanese to vote for the DJP last month. Polls showed that the the party won in a historic landslide because voters saw it as the only available means of demolishing the despised LDP, a sclerotic patronage machine that ruled the country for nearly half a century.

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