Restless Under The American Umbrella


After last month’s massive defeat of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party ended 54 years of virtually uninterrupted rule, the world is looking at Japan closely for signs of change.

Japan is facing a very tough set of challenges, ranging from domestic economic reform, its welfare provisions, the power of its bureaucracy over its politicians and what to do about the country’s significant contribution to climate change.

But another issue that reaches deeply into the makeup of modern Japan, and one on which there has been a lot of discussion on the blogs, is its longstanding alliance with the US.

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, will be meeting President Obama for the first time at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh that begins tomorrow. One of the biggest issues for the alliance is the future of the US’s massive bases on the island of Okinawa. Certainly in Okinawa at least, real change means the shrinkage or closure of the bases. A 2007 poll showed that 85 per cent of Okinawans oppose the US presence, and in the recent election each of the pro-base candidates running for one of Okinawa’s four single-seat constituencies lost.

Their objections are largely over environmental and safety concerns, and especially over sex crimes committed by US military personnel against Okinawan girls as young as 12, with local authorities powerless to make arrests due to the US’s protection for its soldiers.

But in the rest of Japan, the alliance is seen more as an economic, strategic and symbolic problem. According to William Pfaff, "The subordinate place Japan occupies in the relationship is humiliating: as an advanced base for American military operations in Asia that have nothing to do with Japan’s security, and on which Japan has no voice (the case during the Vietnam war decade, and now with the war in Afghanistan)". Japan currently pays the US 40 per cent of the costs for hosting 50,000 US troops, plus 100 per cent of the associated labour costs which Pfaff says is "both onerous and increasingly exploitative".

Traditionally the DPJ Party has been less enthusiastic than the previous government about the US military presence in Japan, and Hatoyama has called for a more equal relationship with Washington.

Joel Legendre on the Asian Gazette blog recounts a recent bit of positioning by Hatoyama on the issue in the lead-up to the 30 August general election, when the Japanese journal Voice published an opinion piece he’d written which was subsequently reprinted in the New York Times.

Reaction in the US saw Hatoyama’s piece as an "anti-American" positioning statement. However Hatoyama’s staff claimed that his article had been poorly translated, while Naoki Nakazawa, managing editor of Voice, "said that so far he has not received any reprint requests by any of the US papers that published the essay and was unsure if this infringed the essay’s copyright, which belongs to Hatoyama. Hatoyama’s secretary, Daisuke Haga, said they were also unaware that the essay was circulating in US publications. He urged people to read the entire essay, which is posted on Hatoyama’s sebsite in Japanese, English and Korean." According to Haga, "Then [readers]would realise that it’s not about anti-Americanism, but about ‘yuai’ (fraternity)".

With North Korea remaining a security threat in the region and Japan’s relationship with China becoming more challenging as it grows economically and militarily, there are some who believe Hatoyama will not want to rely on the support of waning US power but instead establish himself as an independent advocate of Japan’s primary geopolitical interests. Of course, the pro-US position still sees the extremely tight US alliance as Japan’s best bet.

It’s too early to say what Hatoyama’s intentions are as he seeks a more "equal relationship" with the US. Writing on Huffpo John Feffer says, "This rhetoric might simply translate into a demand that the United States pay more for stationing troops in Japan. Or the DPJ implement a much more Asia-centric, multilateral, diplomacy-rich approach that kicks US troops out of Okinawa."

For his part, Japan’s new Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also sees the US alliance as being on the agenda, listing it as the first of Japan’s diplomatic priorities, along with efforts to bring peace to the Pakistan-Afghanistan area, and climate change. But diplomatic efforts in the first of these have been overshadowed by the announcement earlier this year of President Obama’s new US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos. It was not well received in Japan.

A lawyer and significant donor to the Obama presidential election campaign, Roos’s credentials for the job were questioned by observers, who noted that before he took up his post on 19 August he had never set foot in the country. Jeff Kingston from Temple University Japan said, "I think there was a collective sense of disappointment with the appointment of someone nobody knew anything about. I mean, below low profile — no profile. And so I think in Japan there’s a sense of ‘Japan passing and China rising’, and this does give way to anxieties."

Inevitably, the domestic political desires for change that have respectively brought Hatoyama and Obama to power have also led to comparisons of the prospects for reform under each leader. But it’s a comparison that makes real change seem unlikely, according to Philip J Cunningham on the Informed Comment blog:

"Prime Minister Hatoyama would be wise to take note of how US President Obama, who started out with so much promise, and such a huge mandate for change, [ended]up tacking to the right and frittering much of his mandate away, betraying his own reform-minded base in the hopes of placating Wall Street, the Pentagon and America’s implacable right wing. Mr Hatoyama and the DPJ face a comparable test, and early indications suggest they too will compromise and bend and revive existing patronage patterns, perhaps until the day that they are not recognisably different from the ‘fat cats’ and the complacent ruling party that they have ostensibly replaced. For change to have any real meaning, it has to exit the realm of rhetoric and enter the realm of action."

But not everyone sees a minimal or more gradual shift as a completely bad thing. Devin Stewart, Director of the Global Policy Innovations program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, expects that despite the uncomfortable aspects of the US alliance, the Japanese public will not support a decisive shift away from it, as they still see too many benefits. At the same time, Stewart argues that there is plenty that both new governments can agree on, which could lead to shifts in the shape of the alliance by mutual assent.

"A stronger emphasis on the non-military elements of the US-Japan relationship; better relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors; more active involvement with multilateral initiatives through international organisations, like the United Nations. These are precisely the types of foreign policies the Obama administration would welcome. The concern among Japanese about US foreign policy stemmed from Bush’s unilateral action in Iraq, trashing of international treaties, and contempt for international organisations — the very things that concerned the Obama team, too. When you look at it, the Democrats in Japan and the Democratic Party in the United States are quite aligned."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.