[Viewpoint] Japan’s changing U.S. relationship

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[Viewpoint] Japan’s changing U.S. relationship

“Dove, where are you flying to?” reads a Japanese newspaper headline. The dove - hato in Japanese - refers to Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Since bringing power to the opposition party for the first time in over a half-century, Hatoyama has been making a stir at home and abroad, especially with the United States. The decades-old alliance between the U.S. and Japan has been showing fissures after Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan came to power in September with banners calling for more equal relations. For the first time since the Second World War, Tokyo is saying “no” to Washington’s face.

The Hatoyama government announced that in January it will stop its mission in the Indian Ocean of refueling warships supporting the American military campaign in Afghanistan. It also wants to review the 2006 agreement to relocate a U.S. Marines air base in Okinawa by pushing the U.S. forces out of the southern island ahead of schedule.

In a recent summit meeting with his counterparts from China and South Korea, Hatoyama remarked that Japan in the past had been too reliant on the United States. It now wants closer ties with Asia. He had since toned down his rhetoric, emphasizing that the Japan-U.S. alliance remains the key pillar of his country’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, at home, he repeated his call for an extensive re-examination of U.S. relations.

Washington, naturally, is not pleased with the developments. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly snapped that it was up to Japan what kind of relations it wants. Japan has replaced China as the new Asian headache for Washington, one newspaper reported.

Up until the 1990s, Japan had enjoyed economic clout on the global stage that China now commands. Americans feared they would be soon overrun by the Japanese with their innovations and technology. Leading the foray was Sony Corp. Chairman Akio Morita, who provoked controversy with a book he co-authored with a right-wing nationalist, called “The Japan that Can Say No,” which virtually called upon Japan to reject U.S. demands and gain international influence equal to its economic might. Yet no bureaucrats in Tokyo dared to follow his advice.

Decades later, the country’s new leader from a liberal party is blatantly rejecting Washington’s demands at a time when its economic status as Asian powerhouse is on the verge of being replaced by China. A common thread runs in the Democratic Party and its former leader Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa had maintained that the country needs to forsake postwar reservations and take a stand for its own national interests. He calls for reinvention in foreign relations, seeking a more equal footing with the United States and closer ties with Asian neighbors. Unlike the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is less entangled with historic responsibilities. It seeks to move away from post-war submissiveness and pro-American policies in order to build a self-determining and confident country.

In Washington, some refer to U.S.-Japan relations as a separated couple. Korea had been in a similar tight spot during the defiant Roh Moo-hyun administration. President Lee Myung-bak can capitalize on the contentious relations between Washington and Tokyo during President Barack Obama’s visit. President Roh, despite his strong rhetoric, consented to Washington’s request for Korea to send 3,600 troops to Iraq. In contrast, his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi pocketed practical gains from the U.S. by weighing in its favor. Japan recently pledged $7 billion in nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan ahead of President Obama’s visit to Tokyo. We must reiterate our long-standing friendship and at the same time rake in practical gains in urgent affairs like the Free Trade Agreement, security and North Korean nuclear issues during the upcoming talks.


*The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yun Deok-min

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