Japan’s Relationship With U.S. Gets a Closer Look
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: December 1, 2009
TOKYO — Two months after taking power, Japan’s new leadership is still raising alarms in the United States with its continued scrutiny of the countries’ more than half-century-old security alliance. But this reconsideration is not a pulling away from the United States so much as part of a broader, mostly domestic effort to outgrow Japan’s failed postwar order, say political experts here.
More important, the analysts say, these stirrings may also be the first signs of something that both Tokyo and Washington should have had years ago: a more open dialogue on a security relationship that has failed to keep up with the changing realities in Japan and, more broadly, in Asia.
Even after President Obama’s feel-good visit to Tokyo last month, the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has begun an inquiry to expose secret cold war-era agreements that allowed American nuclear weapons into Japan and has conducted a rare public review of its financial support for the 50,000 United States military workers based here. This continues the approach taken by Mr. Hatoyama since his Democratic Party scored a historic election victory in August on pledges to build a more equal partnership with Washington.
A few political analysts in the United States have compared Mr. Hatoyama to Roh Moo-hyun, the former South Korean president who rode a wave of anti-Americanism to power in 2002. But most say he is aiming not at the United States so much as at the policies of the Liberal Democratic Party, whose half-century rule Mr. Hatoyama’s party ended.
“Hatoyama is often misunderstood,” said Koji Murata, a professor of international relations at Kyoto’s Doshisha University. “Hatoyama is not anti-American. He’s anti-L.D.P.”
Since taking office in September, Mr. Hatoyama has pursued his campaign promise to sweep away the old insider-driven politics of the Liberal Democrats that many Japanese now blame for their country’s stagnation and replace them with a more transparent and responsive government. This has remained his main goal, even as he has fought to contain the damage of a scandal involving accusations of millions of dollars in improperly reported political donations.
As a pillar of that postwar order, the alliance with Washington has become a favorite target of the new government. In particular, the Democrats are keen to end the popular perception here that the American relationship was conducted behind closed doors by the nation’s powerful bureaucracy, without the full consent of Japanese public opinion.
This is the intent of the inquiry into the secret agreements from the 1960s and 1970s allowing United States ships and aircraft to carry nuclear weapons into Japan, sidestepping Japan’s self-imposed ban on such weapons, experts say. Exposing the agreements would have little effect on the current alliance. The deals were discarded after Washington removed nuclear weapons from most of its ships and planes in 1991, and their existence had been exposed years ago by American and retired Japanese officials.
Rather, experts here say, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has pressed the inquiry in order not only to increase transparency but to embarrass the entrenched bureaucrats at the Foreign Ministry, which still officially denies the pacts’ existence. A similar desire for transparency was also apparent last week, when a special committee on cutting government waste took up the $1.4 billion that Tokyo spends annually on the salaries for Japanese workers on American bases. After a one-hour debate that focused on clarifying pay scales without once raising a doubt about the need for the bases, the committee voted to leave the appropriation unchanged.
While there were no substantive changes, just raising such delicate topics like the base salaries underscores how much more willing Mr. Hatoyama is than previous Japanese leaders to ruffle Washington’s feathers.
However, political experts say, neither his government nor Japan’s public has shown any signs of wanting to substantially alter the alliance, which has ensured Japan’s security since the end of World War II. If anything, public sentiment calls for remaining close to the United States in a geopolitical region that includes a rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Indeed, the occasional inability of the two allies to understand each other reflects what Mr. Murata and others call a failure of communication. Part of the problem was that Washington was late in reaching out to Mr. Hatoyama, whose victory swept away Washington’s traditional channels to the former ruling party and the central ministries.
But more fundamentally, the recent strains have revealed how little the two allies are used to the give and take commonly found in America’s relations with other allies, like Britain or Australia. Japan’s new government has disrupted the old rhythms of the alliance by thrusting its problems out into the open for the first time in years, exposing rifts that never would have been acknowledged publicly in the past.
“These are two partners who are not used to talking to each other,” said Tobias Harris, a former political aide to a Democratic Party lawmaker who now writes a blog. Mr. Harris and other analysts said the two countries must figure out how they want to cooperate in a new era when the United States is no longer the unchallenged superpower, Japan is no longer willing or able to serve as Washington’s pocketbook and the regional balance of power is being upended by China.
For now, one of the results of Tokyo’s greater transparency has been a lack of consistency. A case in point has been the discussion over relocating the unpopular Futenma Marine Corps Air Base off the southern island of Okinawa. American officials have pressed Tokyo to honor a 2006 agreement to relocate the base to a less populated part of Okinawa, but Japan’s Democrats pledged during the campaign to relocate the base off Okinawa or even out of Japan altogether.
Since taking power in September, members of Japan’s new government have offered contradictory statements on the issue. Mr. Hatoyama has hinted that he will not make a final decision until January.
Still, there are ample signs that Tokyo and Washington will eventually start seeing eye to eye again. During his visit, President Obama agreed to talks on the Futenma issue, and Mr. Hatoyama responded by explaining his tough political choice between Washington and public opinion on Okinawa.
“This government has only been in power less than 100 days,” said Mr. Murata. “It is not surprising if there are some teething problems.”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2009, on page A8 of the New York edition.