Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister of Japan on September 16, two weeks after a landslide election victory made his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) the first single opposition party to take over Japanese government since World War II. The DPJ now holds nearly two-thirds of the 480 seats in the Japanese Diet's powerful lower house, which approves budgets, initiates most legislation, and selects the prime minister. Given such dominance, the party, however fractious, will likely remain in power for at least the four years of its new parliamentary mandate -- influencing the country's political-economic landscape during a crucial period of transition in East Asian affairs, and potentially in U.S.-Japanese relations as well. Weighty issues affecting both Asian regionalism and the U.S. security role in East Asia loom over the next half decade.

In his campaign for office, Hatoyama stressed the need to deepen relations with Japan's Asian neighbors, particularly South Korea and China, and advocated expanded Asian monetary integration. He also champions the notion of yuai -- analogous to the French notion of fraternité, or brotherhood -- as a communalist alternative to the confrontational, unilateralist "market globalism" that he argues has pervaded international economic affairs in recent years. This rhetoric underlies his plans to reverse former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's postal reforms (which proposed to privatize Japan's massive postal savings and insurance programs) and may have broader implications for trade and economic regulation.

Some analysts suggest that Hatoyama will try to separate Japan from the United States, but this interpretation is simplistic. More likely, his international dealings will be informed by his cosmopolitan and intellectual streak; he holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, the alma mater of the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos. In informal discussions with senior Japanese and foreign officials, Hatoyama has stressed the importance of maintaining Japan's diplomatic relationships -- its most important, of course, being with the United States. And he has shown clear regard, especially in the final days of his campaign, for the message and achievements of U.S. President Barack Obama. Yet Hatoyama has affiliated for 15 years with an opposition party largely ignored by Washington, and he might well have personal reasons to resent exertions of U.S. power in and around Japan: his grandfather was denied the post of prime minister in 1946, on the eve of his expected appointment, after a sudden purge ordered by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. Also, Hatoyama's criticisms of what he calls "globalism" often tend toward critiques of the United States as a driver of policies that damage traditional economic activities and destroy local communities.

Hatoyama's DPJ has vowed to move a major U.S. Marine Corps air base from Okinawa Prefecture, where it has been since 1945, and to withdraw Japanese Marine Self Defense Forces from the Indian Ocean, where they provide fuel for NATO and other forces interdicting terrorist smuggling into Pakistan. Both positions contradict policies of previous Japanese governments and are in tension with current Pentagon and State Department views. Washington's concern is heightened by bureaucratic inertia and fear that the U.S.-Japanese alliance might appear to be losing its credibility. It is true that the U.S. and Japan agreed at the 1996 Bill Clinton-Ryutaro Hashimoto summit to relocate the air base within Okinawa; therefore, moving the air base from Okinawa means reversing a high-level promise. Japan's Indian Ocean deployment has also been a matter of high-level agreement. But U.S. officials should not let their fears about alliance credibility cloud their judgment over the value of particular projects: Japan's Indian Ocean deployment has saved Washington only $75 million per year since 2001. Washington could easily recover from losing Japan's refueling aid and find other avenues for demonstrating the strength and reliability of the Washington-Tokyo partnership.  

The DPJ has also questioned the broader $26 billion military transformation agreement, signed in February by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, which includes funding to relocate the U.S. Marine air station in Okinawa to a new location within the prefecture. The agreement aimed to upgrade alliance capabilities while defusing base-related tensions, as well as consolidate U.S.-Japanese counterterrorism and missile-defense capabilities in mainland Japan. It also provided for moving 8,000 U.S. marines (and their dependents) to Guam. Now that the DPJ is in power, it is unclear whether the party will push to revise the agreement officially. Similarly unclear is how the DPJ government will respond next spring when the Diet considers whether to renew Japan's $4 billion expenditure for hosting U.S. bases.

Amid such short-term frictions, there are also areas for potential cooperation. Japanese maritime forces are still engaged in anti-piracy missions far west of the Straits of Malacca, which the DPJ has not repudiated. The DPJ appears willing to expand nonmilitary activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Japan already funds the salaries of 80,000 Afghan policemen (half the country's total force) and is considering providing other assistance for projects in education, transportation, and medicine in Afghanistan. The new government is also likely to play a major role in nonmilitary support to Pakistan.

The Obama and Hatoyama governments share common interests regarding energy and environmental initiatives. Hatoyama has recently announced the ambitious goal of reducing Japan's CO2 emissions by 25 percent by 2025, which far exceeds American and even European emissions-cutting objectives (6 and 20 percent, respectively). Japanese industry charges that Hatoyama's target is unrealistic, but using official development assistance (ODA) funds for emissions trading could render his objective viable and even attractive for Japan's domestic economy. It would convert some of Japan's own commitments into support for developing nations' efforts and could generate export opportunities for green-sector Japanese firms.

To further its interests while respecting DJP concerns about the symmetry of the U.S.-Japanese relationship, the United States should selectively facilitate trans-Pacific cooperation. Post-conflict development in Afghanistan and Pakistan is ripe for such collaboration and would involve Japan in new types of meaningful security-related activities. Washington should also help reinforce the American and Japanese populations' view of the U.S.-Japanese alliance by supporting a bilateral energy dialogue on energy-efficient best practices; expanded scientific and cultural exchanges; and a twenty-first century Wisemen's Group, modeled on the successful U.S.-Japanese policy research body established in the 1970s by President Jimmy Carter and former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. Visits by Obama to Japan in November 2009 and November 2010 -- for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits in Singapore and Japan, respectively -- could help foster such cooperation. They will also give U.S. officials the necessary time for learning and appreciating the new and rapidly evolving realities of Japanese politics.


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  • KENT CALDER is Director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author, most recently, of Pacific Alliance: Reviving US-Japan Relations, and served from 1997-2001 as Special Adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
  • More By Kent E. Calder